Chicago Theatre Review
The Herd – Steppenwolf Theatre Company
It’s Andy’s 21st birthday. Although he hasn’t exactly been counting the days until the event, Carol, Andy’s mother, is planning a special family gathering because her entire life has always revolved around her son. Andy’s lived most of his life in an assisted-living home because his skills are that of a ten-month-old child. Plagued by respiratory illness, Andy was born brain damaged and is incapable of caring for himself. His older sister, Claire, has also devoted much of her life to helping nurture her younger brother. Not surprisingly, Claire hasn’t had much of a personal life herself. Today, however, she welcomes Mark, her new boyfriend, to the family gathering. They have their own bit of news to share with everyone. Andy’s loving, quirky grandparents, Patricia and Brian, who’ve always offered their support, are also in attendance. However Ian, Andy’s father, left Carol long ago for another woman, back when his son was still a baby. And although he still has feelings for his family, Ian’s contact with them and his support for his children have been limited. As a result, when Ian turns up unexpectedly for Andy’s birthday, he’s greeted with coldness and hatred.
This play, British actor Rory Kinnear’s first, is based upon his own experiences growing up in a family with a disabled sister. His drama, which sizzles with tension and is filled with unexpected humor, paints an honest portrait of a group of people whose emotional lives have been stretched to the limits. Revolving around a child whose every need has always been dependent upon others, Kinnear creates Carol, his central character, a strong and selfless woman who is first, foremost and always a mother. She has lived moment-to-moment with only her son’s well-being in mind and, as she says, the phone doesn’t ring that she isn’t thinking it’s going to be bad news about her son. Of course, Carol also loves and cares for Claire, her middle-aged daughter, as well as for her aging parents, Patricia and Brian; but Andy is her sole reason for living.
Molly Regan’s portrayal of this fighting tiger is gritty and tough, yet unexpectedly warm and laced with a dark sense of mirth. Heartfelt, hardy and full of devotion, Ms. Reagan plays the kind of mother everyone wishes they might’ve had. Audrey Francis is smart, focused and equally strong as Claire, the daughter who’s also sacrificed her life for her sibling, but who’s finally found her own shining reason to live. In Mark, Cliff Chamberlain comes to this family bringing lightness, a breath of fresh air and much welcomed humor. In his character we have the audience’s surrogate. He arrives not really knowing much about the family, including Claire’s real age, but he makes himself at home and proves a welcome addition. In one of the play’s sweetest, most sincere moments, Mark, a performance poet, shares his true feelings toward Claire.
Veteran actors Lois Smith and John Mahoney bring more humor and honesty to their roles as grandparents, Patricia and Brian. Sarcastic and always ready to challenge those around her, Ms. Smith’s Patricia is a gruff force of nature with whom nobody wants to mess. Culture-loving Brian, played tenderly with bright kindness, intellect and love by Mr. Mahoney, is the yin to his wife’s yang. As Ian, Francis Guinan brings his usual strength and commitment to this role as a father filled with guilt. He awkwardly attempts to reconcile with the family he abandoned years ago, but it’s an uphill battle. More than Mr. Guinan’s words, his face and body express so much pain, frustration and need for forgiveness and understanding. The emotional clutter that’s inside this man finally spills forward in one of the best performances of his career.
Long time ensemble member and multi-Jeff Award-winner Frank Galati has directed this wonderful play with truthfulness and loving compassion. Walt Spangler’s gorgeous, detailed set creates multiple levels of playing areas for Galati’s cast. Kinnear hasn’t written a play about the perfect family—and does such a thing even exist outside of 1950’s sitcom comedies? But he creates a group of people who, in Mr. Galati’s capable hands, are realistic, continually challenged by all that life continues to throw at them and, in the end, come together as a loving, caring unit. In this terrific production, it’s family first.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 2-June 7 by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in its Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-335-1650, by visiting the box office in person or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.