‘The Herd’ at Steppenwolf: It’s Dad at the door, but it could be the wolf – he’s so not welcome
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Ah, family values. Mom, Dad, the kids. The dysfunction, the divorce, the alienation, the animosity. All the things that make a house a home are piled into “The Herd,” a smashing first play by British writer Rory Kinnear now fuming through its U.S. premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.
It is a perfect, numbing storm of grim reality, festering wounds and deep-seated resentment, the whole human comedy at its most absurd and most painful. “The Herd” is brilliant and funny, dark and stunning, a single, sharply written sweep of 100 minutes that flies by too quickly. No need to equivocate. It is simply not to be missed.
Think of “The Herd,” set in suburban London, as Tracy Letts’ family angst play “August: Osage County” with a different brand of vitriol. Actually, the latter play comes to mind with the first glimpse of designer Walt Spangler’s wondrously detailed English home, a place that looks livable and lived in. Count Spangler among this production’s stars, and close the set competition now: This is the season’s best.
The costumed stars (somebody pin a ribbon on clothier Nan Cibula-Jenkins, too) form a six-point constellation.
At the play’s center is Carol (Molly Regan), a weathered, bitter middle-aged mom who has worried herself thin over a mentally impaired son kept at a care center but expected home today to celebrate his 21st birthday. Carol’s 33-year-old daughter Claire (Audrey Francis) brings to the party her undeclared boyfriend Mark (Cliff Chamberlain).
Carol’s aged, barely mobile father Ian (John Mahoney) and her likewise elderly but still-robust mother Patricia (Lois Smith) also have been invited. The domestic pot threatens to boil over, however, when Carol’s ex-husband Ian (Francis Guinan), hotly despised by all other members of the family, shows up unannounced to join the birthday fun.
The unbounded rage displayed against this man is something to behold. “The Herd” is essentially the narrative of Ian’s unwelcome, miscalculated and halting effort to reconnect with the family he abandoned years before when the overwhelming circumstance of the needy son became more than he could bear.
Still, the beleaguered, ever-soldiering Carol is our touch-point, the primary set of eyes through which we view not only Ian’s bid for re-admission but also the family as a collective. Regan plays her with a barely suppressed anger that leaks out in every direction. Carol revels in her martyrdom, and her speech is an endless froth of f-words. No one could possibly comprehend, she declares again and again, the great burden that she alone has borne in protecting her fixedly infantile son.
Regan’s long-suffering Carol finds a worthy punching bag in Guinan’s interloping Ian. Showing up at the door like a wayward puppy, Ian is greeted by a 21-gun volley, and it’s not a salute: How dare he just pop in, out of the blue, after years of silence, presuming to join this birthday party for their tragically afflicted son in whom he has never taken interest? But Ian insists that he’s entitled to be there, that he wants to be there – that he wants to fix things.
And it is Guinan’s finely drawn performance on which this play turns. So contemptuous is the whole family of Ian that we initially view him in the same light. Only through a sputtering, faltering progression – an effort fraught with human imperfection but also ennobled by authenticity – does Guinan’s marginalized figure gain a foothold in that living room.
If Carol is resistant, daughter Claire is viciously set against her father. Francis offers a sympathetic portrait of a woman past her youth who has neither forgotten nor forgiven how her father bailed on them. But beyond the surface resentment, Francis also conveys the roiling emotions that beset Claire as she inches toward delivering some amazing news to her mother and grandparents. As Claire’s boyfriend, Chamberlain adds nice touches of bemusement in the face of open family warfare.
Mahoney and Smith, as maternal grandparents whose age exempts them from discretion, draw waves of laughter with their directness in awkward moments. Here’s one instance when bathroom jokes are actually funny. Never mind that this English couple speak with a flat Midwestern accent: They’re in linguistically muddled company. Only Francis really has it down.
The invisible hand of director Frank Galati is evident everywhere in pacing, timing and the delicate gauging of family temperament. Beautiful work all around, to the last uncertain flourish of human foible.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Steppenwolf Theatre’s complete 2014-15 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Rory Kinnear, actor and playwright: Read about him here