Westwood Actress Makes Walpole Footlighters Debut in The Humans, a Realistic Play about Fear and Family
October 21, 2022 was the opening night of the 99th performance season for the Walpole Footlighters, and the first show for Westwood resident Elise Blanchard with the theatre company. Ms. Blanchard stars as Brigid Blake in Stephen Karam’s Tony Award winning play, The Humans, directed by Cammerron Baits.
As Brigid, Ms. Blanchard plays hostess to her Irish-American family for their Thanksgiving dinner in the two-level apartment that she shares with her boyfriend in New York City’s Chinatown.
Incorporating the larger space of the playhouse itself into the set design is an apparent choice by Director Baits, and an effective one. About ten minutes before the play’s characters make their first appearances onstage, with house lights still on and audience still chattering, the 79 year-old Chinese woman from Brigid’s apartment building strolls in. She passes directly in front of the first row of the audience, on the audience level, and crosses from one side of the theater to the other. A short while later, the Blake family also makes an entrance through the seated audience to the stage, as part of their journey to Brigid's New York apartment.
The play itself is housed in the rustic and renovated space of a warehouse that Charles Sumner Bird presented to Walpole Footlighters as their new home in the 1950s. The exposed, wooden beams of the theater play perfectly into the setting of Brigid’s apartment - the simple, humble abode of a struggling musician. They also also echo the Blake family’s exposure of raw feelings and fears in the course of the play, within what feels like a safe setting.
Ms. Blanchard describes the plot. “It’s about a family coming to New York City for Thanksgiving dinner. . . and in a lot a ways it seems like it’s going to be a fairly normal Thanksgiving Dinner. [ ] Through the course of the meal and the evening, a lot of these universal human fears start to claw their way out. . . . all of the characters onstage deal with something that they are afraid of and struggling with. And that’s the story about family, and trying to navigate the ups and downs of any kind of interpersonal relationship, and how to repair things, and nourish each other, and move forward.”
Ms. Blanchard notes that she jumped at the opportunity to work with director Cammerron Baits, whom she acted with in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Taunton. He was Demetrius and Ms. Blanchard was Hermia. Before that, Mr. Baits worked in New York City. “He’s as professional as you can get on a community theater scene,” says Ms. Blanchard. Mr. Baits had scheduled sixteen full runs of the show before opening night, she estimates.
“I had worked with him in an actor capacity before,” says Ms. Blanchard. “He told all of us that working with him as a director would be a different kind of version of him because it’s two different jobs. . . .That’s been accurate, but it’s been really really lovely working with him.”
“This show is breathtakingly difficult to do,” she continues. “It is the hardest show I’ve had to do as an actor, and he has navigated us as smoothly as possible through getting the show on its feet.”
Ms. Blanchard explained the challenges of putting on the play. “The Humans is a one act, no intermission play. It has 1300 and something lines, and we all overlap each other a lot, and interrupt each other, and things happen at the same time. None of us ever leave the stage [ ] up until the very end,” she explains, noting that a typical play has only around 600 to 800 lines.
The show is also a two-floor set, with multiple things going on at the same time in Brigid’s entryway, bathroom, kitchen, and dining area. Details have been worked in to make the show as close to real life as possible, says Ms. Blanchard.
“On top of that, the content is really emotionally difficult to muscle through,” she adds. The characters deal with physical, emotional, and relationship break-downs stemming from situations both outside of and within the family.
“I really would love for the audience to come away feeling like some part of them is seen ….that they are not alone - which sounds so freaking cliché - but I think we all keep all of our fears so locked up. . . . You don’t sit down at the dinner table and talk about what you’re afraid of. And this family doesn’t say that in so many words. . . but it’s very clear that everyone’s struggling what they’re most afraid of. We (the community) feel so much shame around our fear, and I don’t think we should have to. I would feel like we were successful at storytelling if someone walks away from the show and feels seen, or heard, or less alone.”
Ms. Blanchard and her fellow cast members do indeed recreate what feels like a realistic family holiday gathering. They successfully illustrate moments that include bickering over things like directions, playful teasing to prying concern, revelation, rejection, and love and acceptance. While Brigid and her father Erik (Chris Erath), mother Deirdre (Michelle Truax), grandmother Momo (Ninette Pantano Cummings), sister Aimee (Abigail D. Bays/Jess Couture) and boyfriend Richard (John Soares) begin as strangers to the audience, they are by play's end a reflection of the familiar faces of family.
Thanks to Elise Blanchard, Steven Small, and The Walpole Footlighters for contributing information for this Westwood Minute article. Upcoming performances of The Humans can be seen on October 28, 29 and November 5th at 8:00 p.m. and November 6th at 2 p.m.