By Kim Jackson
Rory Kinnear’s first play, The Herd, drew rave responses when it was performed in London and at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. And it will elicit similar reactions with Honest Pint Theatre Company’s production, directed by David Henderson. This show was written for actors to shine as they confront each other over family responsibility in the care of a severely disabled child. Ultimately Kinnear’s script begs for understanding and empathy for this family’s struggles.
The drama opens with a harried mother, Carol, attempting to pull together the last bits for her son Andy’s 21st birthday party. Family members are expected, of course, including the guest of honor, but things start going wrong from the beginning. Problems first abound with Andy’s transportation from the facility where he resides, as well as with his hired caregiver, who seems to undermine Carol’s every request. Carol’s daughter Claire arrives with tons of attitude, and the appearance of Carol’s aging parents, supportive but judgemental, add to the stress of the situation. Toss in the unexpected arrival of an errant ex-husband, Ian, who abandoned the family many years earlier, and the introduction of Claire’s new boyfriend, Mark, who may wonder what he has signed on for, and the tension is inevitable.
And this family drama is thick with it, permeating every interaction like an odorless gas that causes damage before you are fully aware of its effects. Each character challenges choices made by another, and the responses bounce among acerbic barbs, dark humor, and angry tirades. Simmering resentments ratchet up the tension while underlying guilt, reflecting less than positive thoughts about Andy, temper the mood. This family is in survival-mode.
Carol, the matriarch of this ‘herd,’ who has been Andy’s primary caregiver since birth, is played with fierce passion by the veteran actor Susannah Hough. She brings a remarkable believability and sympathy to a mother caught in a perfect storm of having sacrificed through the years without feeling recognized for it. Her daughter Claire believes she has not only been neglected by her mother’s focus on
Carol’s parents, Brian and Patricia, offer concern for both the welfare of their daughter and grandson while also subtly conveying their many frustrations of the circumstances. They bear witness to Carol’s struggles and yet are powerless to alleviate the burdens. Lenore Field’s Patricia competently conveys emotional range in the role of a meddling judgemental grandparent, without falling too far into a stereotype. Paul Newell’s Brian is humorous and wise, offering up some of the most telling lines of the play.
The other two unplanned guests at the party, Ian, the estranged ex-husband of Carol, and Mark, Claire’s new boyfriend, offer contrasting models of support. Ian, played with slick self-awareness by the very talented Simon Kaplan, battles exquisitely with his former wife over their shared past, while saving his underlying guilt for the arguments he is forced to have with his daughter. Claire has not forgiven her father for walking out on them and directs most of her pent up fury at him. Mark, played with calm affability by Daniel Wilson, offers the right combination of subtle wit and comic relief. His presence in Claire’s life offers up the most hope for some happiness in this family’s future.
Through the capable direction of Henderson, the audience experiences the intensity that only a family with a complicated long history of caring for someone with a disability can convey. They communicate through both anger and dark humor as if this is the only way in which they can connect with one another. In fact, the only moments they do come together, which are too few and far between, are when they zero in on the emotional toll Carol’s love for her son has taken on her and the impact that has had on the rest of her family. The meticulousness of the living room/kitchen set, designed by Tab May, also reflects Carol’s attention to detail, to wanting to be in control of a situation that eludes her at every turn.
While parts of the story are predictable, and often the movement of characters feels visibly contrived to engineer conversations between different family members, the tension from the stress over Andy remains palatable to the end. There are moments of lightness, particularly in reference to aging made by the grandparents, as well as Mark’s bemused expression as he bears witness to the family battle. But the mood overall is contentious only moving into the somber as these characters voice some very discomforting truths. All of their lives have been affected by Andy, and while the audience breathes a veritable sigh of relief at the close, the anguish has not ended for this group. As Brian so succinctly notes, “rotten sort of lottery, life.”