Brandon Weinbrenner “graduates” this month as director of the March 1–24 production of out author Stephan Karam’s 2016 Tony Award-winning tragicomedy, The Humans, on the Alley Theatre’s upstairs Hubbard Stage.
Weinbrenner previously directed Venus in Fur, a two-character show by David Ives, on Alley’s smaller downstairs Neuhaus Theatre stage. After helping with more than 25 productions as the theater’s resident assistant director since 2013, directing The Humans will be Weinbrenner’s debut as the guy upstairs.
“It feels like graduating,” says Weinbrenner. Now called the Alley’s artistic associate, he adds, “I am feeling absolute joy. I love this play and this cast. The Alley has been my home for six years. I have grown up here as
The Humans is a 90-minute “real-time” presentation of a family Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Brigid Blake, age 26, and her boyfriend, Richard Saad, age 38, in their problem-prone duplex apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. Did I mention the view includes an interior courtyard? “What? It’s an alley full of cigarette butts,” says Brigid’s mother, Deirdre. “Why are there bars on the window? Is the neighborhood dangerous?”
“With this very accessible family get-together, Stephan Karam has written a play about big ideas and the fear and anxiety of post-9/11 America,” says Weinbrenner. “The characters grapple with fears of poverty, fears about dying, and fears of illness.”
When Richard tells the guests how he got to “reboot” his life by addressing his depression, Brigid’s father replies, “I dunno. Doing life twice sounds like the only thing worse than doing it once.”
Richard can afford to feel optimistic. In two years, his trust fund will kick in. The other characters dread what might be lurking ahead—especially Brigid’s lesbian sister, Aimee, who will soon undergo surgery for ulcerative colitis.
“I’m gonna be pooing out of a hole in my abdomen. Who’s gonna date me?” she despairs.
“If they rerouted your colon to your ears, I’d still marry you,” says Brigid.
Weinbrenner, who is 34, says that of the play’s six characters, he most identifies with Brigid. “I connect with her so much—how she interacts with her parents and her siblings. I watch her and it’s like looking back on my 26-year-old self. Even when she makes a comment that sounds not so considerate, I think maybe she is just immature. She means to be empathetic.”
The director entrusted “the most difficult role” of Momo, Erik’s wheelchair-bound mother who has severe dementia, to gay fave Annalee Jefferies, an LGBTQ ally in Houston since her days as an Alley Resident Company member (1986–2007), when she starred as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Harper Pitt in Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.
“Annalee is an absolute dream,” says Weinbrenner. “She is the consummate actress. When you cast this play, you are casting a family. You are casting good actors and good human beings, so they make it easy to do your absolute best work.”
Karam also wrote the gay-centric Speech & Debate, which out director Kenn McLaughlin directed at Stages Repertory Theatre in April 2010. Karam hails from Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the parents live in The Humans.
Meanwhile, sister Aimee lives and works as an attorney in Philadelphia, so Weinbrenner surmises that she has “identified with an LGBTQ community, surrounded herself with progressive friends, and lives completely at ease as a lesbian.”
When The Humans was performed on Broadway in 2016, it was nominated for six Tony Awards and won for Best Play, Best Featured Actor in a Play (Reed Birney as Brigid’s father, Erik), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Jayne Houdyshell as Deirdre), and Best Scenic Design in a Play.
The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Karam’s plays aren’t tearful, but they are often about loss—of love, of health, of innocence—and the messy, haphazard, necessary ways we get on with our lives afterward. He isn’t big on happy endings, but several of his plays offer at least some hope that human connection and resilience will help the characters through. And if that fails, they’ll probably find some other way to keep going.”
What: The Humans
When: March 1—March 24 (ActOut Night on March 7)
Where: Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue