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Role Playing: Francis Guinan embraces conflict of father who fled from grim truth in ‘The Herd’

Submitted by on Jun 9, 2015 – 5:26 pm

Francis Guinan as Ian, a father trying to reconnect with his family in Rory Kinnear's 'The Herd' at Steppenwolf. (Michael Brosilow)Interview: The veteran Steppenwolf ensemble member muses on a rueful man’s bid to reconnect with the family he abandoned in Rory Kinnear’s play. Extended through June 14.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The alienated, indeed despised husband and father Francis Guinan portrays in Rory Kinnear’s marvelous first play “The Herd,” at Steppenwolf Theatre, elicits deeply ambivalent feelings, and not just from the audience. Guinan admits he also sees the guy in decidedly conflicted terms.

“You have to show up,” Guinan was saying about this middle-aged man Ian, who long ago bailed on his wife and the problem of their 21-year-old son whose brain remains at the functional level of an infant. “You can say all you want about romantic love and all that, but if you’re not there when it’s not fun, when there’s nothing to be gained, no pleasure to be had, it’s just hot air. The spouse who’s been in the trenches has a right to be angry, to weep, even to make jokes.”

Carol (Molly Regan) is determined to make this a special birthday for her afflicted son. (Michael Brosilow)But now, to the astonishment and instant fury of both his ex-wife Carol (Molly Regan) and their grown daughter Claire (Audrey Francis), long-absent Ian is standing at the door, a splendidly wrapped present in hand, asking to join in the celebration of their afflicted, institutionalized son’s 21st birthday.

“I do think he has a defensible point of view,” Guinan says. “That he comes back after five years, wanting to be part of his son’s birthday, speaks well of him. On the other hand, honestly, I’d be far less likely to forgive that kind of lapse. But that’s what I like about the play: It’s difficult to take sides.

“At the same time, it’s a tragedy that Carol, who has much to offer the world, has committed such intellectual rigor – completely subsumed her own personality – to the needs of this child. She has just gutted it out. I couldn’t have done it, I don’t have the personality for it – to give up my life for somebody who doesn’t even understand what the sacrifice means. I know that about myself. And Ian knew he couldn’t do it either. It was simply too much, so he left.”

The question at the center of Kinnear’s play is whether the prodigal husband and father will be readmitted to the family hearth, and thus the play unfolds as a sort of moral tribunal. In the end, the jury remains out, though inferences might be drawn either way from the sparest of words.

Daughter Claire (Audrey Francis) brings a surprise -- her boyfriend (Cliff Chamberlain). (Michael Brosilow)Concision, observes Guinan, is one of “The Herd’s” great virtues. “The task of writing a play in real time over 90 minutes with an effective mix of crowd scenes, strong dialogue, monologues – this is a big challenge, and Rory has brought it off magnificently. One of the most imaginative choices was getting Ian into the house. How does the playwright do that? By giving Ian a cut lip – with just enough blood to get him into the living room, but not enough to send him to the hospital.”

Ian faces battles on two fronts, and they are quite different in objective and strategy. He must convince his ex-wife of his contrition, of his true desire to be there for the party, to make amends. The greater challenge, however, is winning back the affection of his now 33-year-old daughter Claire, whose trust he shattered when he quit on the family.

In the play’s most touching scene, Ian makes a desperate bid to show Claire that he has never forgotten her: He sings, from memory, a little song about a mongoose that father and daughter used to sing together when Claire was a child. Getting that moment right, says Guinan, involved a good deal of give and take with both director Frank Galati and Kinnear, who came in from London watch rehearsals and several preview performances.

Carol's father (John Mahoney) gives a performance on the spoons. (Michael Brosilow)“Frank and I talked about this moment a lot,” says Guinan. “And Rory had a very interesting idea, that Ian should feel a certain defiance – anger about Claire’s ignorance of what really went on when she was a girl. Now he’s backed into a corner: ‘You don’t think I love you. OK, here, and he remembers verbatim from when she was, what, four years old, three?

“They had once been very happy together. I think he’s quite a good father. Rory pointed out that it’s Ian who’s footing the bill for everything relating to the boy’s care. What he’s done is unforgivable, but he was never away in his own mind. That’s the redemptive aspect. In his heart, he has always been faithful in this way, as the phrase goes.”

What’s so compelling, so brilliant about the scene is the electric connection between the yearning father and the walled-up daughter. As Ian sings that simple ditty from long ago, we sense Claire’s heart heaving as palpably as we see her face crumble. “In that moment, Audrey doesn’t have any lines at all,” notes Guinan. “It must be telepathic what she communicates to the audience.”

Lois Smith is the straight-talking mother-in-law. (Michael Brosilow)The cast is rounded out by Cliff Chamberlain as Claire’s boyfriend, who finds himself thrust into the family at a moment of extreme stress, and John Mahoney and Lois Smith as Carol’s elderly parents. If Mahoney’s assignment is largely geriatric bathroom jokes, Smith’s plain-spoken mother-in-law actually engages Ian on frank, gritty terms.

“To be on stage with Lois Smith, to absorb all that’s coming from her, is a thrill,” says Guinan. “There’s a sense of history between Ian and (Carol’s mother). She opens the door by asking him for a gin and tonic. And in a paragraph she succinctly wraps up the entire psychological makeup of Carol. She says, ‘I hope Andy (the son) dies. Anything anybody can learn from this has been learned.’ I’m surprised the audience doesn’t gasp. If I were in the audience, I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘Yeah, I get that.’

“The situation is completely intractable in some aspects. People live with ambiguity. It’s possible to have opposable truths and believe both of them. There is no reconciling. The audience knows that what they’re seeing on stage is a true thing. That’s what makes it so thrilling. I’ve had many special experiences in my career as an actor. This play is among the most wonderful.”

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