In ‘The Herd’ by award-winning British actor Rory Kinnear, Steppenwolf Theatre has found another fine play where family troubles are tempered with wit. The production, a U.S. premiere now playing through June 7, captures the heart-rending difficulties of taking care of a severely disabled child while tending to other family needs.
As with Nina Raine’s ‘Tribes,’ the drama revolves around the interactions of an intelligent English family. However, in ‘The Herd’ it is basically grandmother Patricia played by Lois Smith and grandfather Brian interpreted by John Mahoney who have most of the brilliant lines.
Smith and Mahoney’s superb acting and chuckle-inducing moves and lines keep the play from stretching into the overly dramatic. They are a witty and intelligent couple who have aged well and have a worldly view of themselves and everyone else.
Not that the situations depicted aren’t dramatic. The play is filled with highly charged arguments that by its end, are completely understandable.
Carol, the mother (Molly Regan), feels totally unappreciated by her family and the health-care people she is supposed to work with while she desperately tries to cope with son Andy’s severe disability.
Carol’s ex-husband Ian, (Francis Guinan), Andy’s father who abandoned the family years ago, remarried and has another son, is intensely disliked by his first family and in-laws.
Carol’s adult daughter, Claire (Audrey Francis), feels neglected and doesn’t communicate with her mom. Claire hasn’t told the family about her partner, Mark (Cliff Chamberlain), a performance poet, because she is scared about a future where she might be abandoned by him or bear a child who might be disabled.
The setting is Carol’s nice, suburban London home where they have gathered to celebrate Andy’s twenty-first birthday. The audience never sees Andy who is supposed to be brought there by his caregiver but the idea that his mental age is that of a very young toddler is projected by baby toys on one side of the room. That he also suffers bad health is relayed in progressively disturbing phone calls from his caregiver.
An under two-hour, one- act play (no intermission), ‘The Herd’ starts slowly as it sets a mood, but picks up speed with the entrance of John Mahoney and Lois Smith.
It becomes more complicated with the surprise visit of Ian who says he wants to celebrate his son’s birthday but Brian calls him on that and wonders if he really is seeking forgiveness.
Mark, invited by Claire, is also a surprise to the rest of the family. With tongue only partially in cheek, Patricia assures him that as an introduction to the family it is “representative.”
Brian offers his philosophy that all you need in life is “luck and doggedness.” However, he also likes to refer to the Shakespeare plays he is reading in a class: ‘Love’s Labours Lost” and the ‘Merchant of Venice’s’ “Quality of Mercy” speech. At the play’s end, he repeats, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d…..” “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Directed by Frank Galati, ‘The Herd’ is worth seeing if only to better help people understand the trials and hopes of family members and friends and also for its fine performances.
‘The Herd’ is as Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60614 now through June 7, 2014. For tickets and more information visit Steppenwolf and call 312-335-1650.