Like so many other plays before it, “The Herd” is about a family gathering that turns into a moment of crisis and confrontation. It’s a familiar formula, but British actor-playwright Rory Kinnear’s drama is an exceptionally well-written take on this scenario.
Now making its U.S. premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre with a wonderful cast skillfully guided by director Frank Galati, “The Herd” is graced with witty humor—the sort of jokes that roll off the tongue when family members chat. But what makes it so engrossing are the powerful emotions that surface in its awkward moments.
“The Herd” takes place on the 21st birthday of a severely disabled man, who has the mental capacity of a toddler and may not have long to live. His fiercely devoted but frazzled mother, Carol (Molly Regan), anxiously awaits his arrival at the family’s home. Her 30-something daughter, Claire (Audrey Francis), nervously introduces her poet boyfriend, Mark (Cliff Chamberlain), to the family. An older generation is present as well: Carol’s wise and sharp-witted mother, Patricia (Lois Smith), and genial but frail father, Brian (John Mahoney).
But then, an uninvited guest—Carol’s ex-husband, Ian (Francis Guinan)—turns up at the front door. Ian essentially abandoned his wife just when they needed his help with their disabled boy, and no one in the family has even spoken with him for five years. Understandably, his estranged kin aren’t happy to see him, but he desperately wants to reconnect with his children. Ian tries to explain his past behavior, but the others say it’s too late for an apology. He’s looking for redemption, but it isn’t easily found.
Kinnear’s script and Guinan’s persuasive performance elicit sympathy for this man, whose past deeds would seem to make him a villain. And while Carol’s commitment to her son would seem to make her a heroine, she has her own flaws, vividly brought to life by Regan’s performance. In other words, they’re both human—as are the other characters.
At first, the grandfather played by Mahoney (an esteemed local actor most famous for his role in TV’s “Frasier”) feels like a supporting character who’s there for a bit of comic relief. But by the end, he takes the spotlight at some crucial moments, adding even more emotional heft to this memorable and finely drawn drama. The final minutes of “The Herd” are breathtaking.