Despite its title, “The Herd,” the first play by veteran British actor Rory Kinnear, now receiving a vividly acted U.S. debut by Steppenwolf Theatre, has nothing to do with livestock. It is about a gathering of a different sort of beasts —the two-legged variety — mammals who live, feed and migrate together in that well-explored entity known as the family. And while they might lack the tough hooves of some four-legged creatures, they easily can make up for this with a verbal and emotional rigor that has its own particular kick.
The nature of family dynamics (in everything from “August: Osage County” to Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” a sort of kissing cousin to “The Herd”), is a Steppenwolf specialty. And under the direction of Frank Galati — who is happily back in action in Chicago, and who has assembled a stellar cast — that blistering trademark is again fully in evidence.
When: Through June 14
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $86
Info: (312) 335-1650;
Run time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
Kinnear’s play is about a family that was upended many years earlier by the birth of Andy, a severely disabled boy, who in recent years has been institutionalized, even if the fact that he is being cared for outside the home has hardly lessened the impact of his “presence.” As it happens, the play begins as Andy is about to arrive home with his caretaker for a 21st birthday celebration. The truth is, he was never expected to live so long.
Awaiting his arrival is his mother, Carol (Molly Regan), his grandparents — the age-disabled Brian (John Mahoney) and Patricia (Lois Smith) — and his 32-year-old sister, Claire (Audrey Francis), who has invited her younger boyfriend, Mark (Cliff Chamberlain) to the party.
The more unexpected and unwelcome guest is Andy’s father, Ian (Francis Guinan), who, unable to cope with the situation of his son, fled the household 15 years earlier, and has since remarried and fathered another child. Ian’s arrival triggers an outpouring of venom from all present, but also offers an opportunity for at least a shred of reconciliation.
Kinnear (whose play was loosely inspired by the presence of a disabled sister in his own family), has a keen understanding of the way the unceasing, intensive needs of one member of a family can rupture its overall emotional balance. He also understands that some people are more equipped (or just more fated) to assume responsibility, sacrificing their own life in the process of caring for another. Carol has done just that — and continues to do so, even though Andy is no longer at home. And it has taken a profound toll. But she is a mother who cannot walk away.
The fact that the family seems to be bohemian affluent way is a given: Not only can they afford a first-rate facility for Andy, but Walt Spangler’s spectacular multi-story interior suggests they collect art, books and exotic carpets, and live a comfortable life. But money cannot solve the emotional problems: The intense sense of betrayal felt by mother, daughter and grandmother towards Ian; the tension between Carol and Claire; the suppressed hope that Andy might not continue to live, and that his death might restore some sense of normality to Carol’s life. Of course the guilt accompanying such thoughts is immense.
As in Raine’s play, this family can begin to get on your nerves, but there is plenty of redemptive caustic humor and love here, as well as rage, pain, resentment and anguish. And the cast offers a master class in acting.
Regan is superb as a woman whose adrenaline is pumping overtime as she works her very last nerve, and wants desperately to feel something more than despair and anxiety. Francis is ideal as a woman terrified of becoming her mother’s daughter, though for the first time she is trying to build a relationship and a future, and has chosen a man who might just be a fine match. Chamberlain is an easy charmer, unfazed by the family insanity, or by its judgmental tone about his work as a “performance poet.” And Guinan brings just the right mix of exhaustion, bitterness, regret and self-righteousness to his portrayal of Ian.
Smith, an actress who uncannily lives on the stage, is funny, acerbic, assertive and real as the uncensored Patricia. A master of timing, she is a marvel to watch. And Mahoney appears to be having a fine old time as a man who loves his wife, can tune many things out, and can happily play spoons. He also can quote Shakespeare, most notably the lines from “The Merchant of Venice” that are so key to the play: “The quality of mercy is not strained/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath./It is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
No happy endings here but, yes, some sense of mercy.