Produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago
Family Drama Questions Love and Sacrifice
As a company renowned for being driven by its actors, it makes sense Steppenwolf would be interested in The Herd, the first play written by British actor Rory Kinnear. The family drama was written to provide each of its six actors with big, juicy roles in which they each get several moments to luxuriate in Kinnear’s eloquent debates on the responsibilities family members have to each other and themselves. Director Frank Galati leads the cast on a series of confrontations revolving around an unseen character, the severely disabled Andy, which leave the audience exhausted by their ferocity in response to impossible choices, but not in despair.
The play takes place on Andy’s twenty-first birthday, when he is expected to be brought home for a celebration. Being basically immobile with chronic respiratory problems and the intellect of a ten-month-old, he was never expected to live this long. His mother, Carol (Molly Regan), has to battle constantly with his caregivers, who seem intent on disrupting her plans as much as possible, especially today. The only expected guests are her daughter, Claire (Audrey Francis), and her parents, Brian (John Mahoney) and Patricia (Lois Smith). Carol and Claire begin bickering over how to help Andy from the beginning, and Claire asks Carol to behave reasonably because she has invited a new male friend, Mark (Cliff Chamberlain). Carol is excited though distracted by the constant texts from Andy’s nurses, but Patricia has no compunctions about grilling Claire over her and Mark’s relationship. It turns out he’s a poet, which impresses but does not thrill Brian, while Patricia is openly skeptical.
It’s all fairly ordinary until the arrival of Claire and Andy’s father, Ian (Francis Guinan). He fled the family fifteen years ago, created a second family, and hasn’t seen Andy in five years. But now he has a sudden urge to participate in this milestone, much to the displeasure of the rest of the family, especially Patricia and Claire. His arrival sets off a round of recriminations over who owes who what, and who demands compensation after sacrificing more than anyone asked them to. Poor Mark is caught in the middle of it, and learns he’ll have a difficult time extricating himself upon learning that Claire is pregnant. As the characters battle and have heart-to-hearts in various combinations, most of them privately confess that Andy’s death would be a relief.
Walt Spangler has designed a beautiful set, featuring large paintings in vibrant colors of twisting bodies, multicolored ceramic tiles in the kitchen, and stained glass in the door. Carol is clearly well-off, which allows the play to focus on ethical responsibilities without the distraction of money or what are to us the alien functions of the British health system. The set is also detailed enough to include foliage outside the house, and the insides of rooms we only see when doors are open, which creates an engrossing illusion. Carol goes through several costume changes, which designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins uses to show her becoming increasingly formal and commanding. Eva Breneman’s dialect coaching lets us pick up on the difference between Mark’s northern origin and the Londoners without creating comprehension problems.
This really is an actor’s play, and they are all wonderful. Molly Regan as Carol stands out as a self-sacrificing, but controlling mother. Ian complained that he left in part because Carol’s insistence on making every decision by herself made him responsible without giving him power, and we see this in action many times. Francis, who plays Claire with the perfect defensiveness and anxiety resultant from only now being old enough for the tasks she believes she has been carrying out since she was a teenager, makes the mistake of confronting Carol late in the play. The result is an amazing verbal beat-down, delivered by Regan with precision and aplomb. Guinan’s Ian also is a frequent target for these, which he has enough self-awareness to accept, but enough self-respect to counter when Claire’s demands for punishment become too extreme.
Lest you get the impression this is a high-volume play, the actors are clever and varied in their arguing tactics, and not all the interactions in the play are overtly hostile. Brian is good-natured and intellectual. He, too, has developed a physical disability which requires other members of the family to mind him as he attempts to walk, though since he possesses cognition and has less pressing needs, he also gets ignored more. Mahoney plays him as patient, to a point, and wise enough to save up his combativeness until it is truly necessary and most likely to be effective. Patricia, by contrast, is a busybody who loves voicing her opinion and interfering. Not that Smith lacks depth; she provides Patricia with enough grounding in sensibility for the rest of the characters to regard her as a force of nature. Cliff Chamberlain’s Mark, though aware he is in a delicate situation, is unfazed, and doesn’t let Patricia’s concerns over his career bother him. He is eager to get along with everybody without taking sides, and his moments with Francis’s Claire provide hope for this family.
Director Frank Galati keeps all the actors dancing around each other so they’ll collide at just the right times. The blocking further illuminates the characters’ relationships, such as in one scene which has Ian awkwardly sitting at a remove from a circle and finding excuses to stay as far away from Patricia as possible. What works about this play is that it’s a family drama that does not require any bizarre circumstance or individual quirks; everything follows logically from a common situation which Kinnear himself knows firsthand. While Steppenwolf is experienced in family dramas that have enough rage and insults to keep you mesmerized, this is one in which all the characters are sympathetic enough to disappoint you and then redeem themselves. If you dislike family dramas for depicting emotionally stunted people, you will find The Herd a pleasant surprise.
Reviewed April 14, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The Herd’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N Halsted. Tickets are $20-80; to order, call 312-335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.org. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm (no performances May 9), and Sunday at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm (no evening performances after May 10) through June 7. Running time is one hundred and five minutes with no intermission.