Monday, April 27, 2015

Wonderfully Enacted at Steppenwolf, 'The Herd' Has an Appealingly Multifaceted Mentality -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Herd
a recent play by Rory Kinnear
directed by Frank Galati
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 7

The Herd is a wonderfully written play, all the more impressive for being the first penned--or at least produced--by noted British actor, Rory Kinnear.

It premiered in London in September 2013, where reviews seem to have been middling. But at Steppenwolf, with a truly terrific cast under the direction of Frank Galati, it is a fast-moving and engrossing 105-minute one-act that touches effectively on numerous themes.

"The herd" essentially references the gathering of a family, to celebrate the 21st birthday of severely disabled son, Andy, who is never seen as his impending arrival is part of the storyline. Author Kinnear has an adult sister with the mental age of a baby, and clearly understands the numerous challenges in caring for--and acutely worrying about--such a child.

It is obvious how much effort, love and life Carol (Molly Regan) has devoted to her son, and though--at least per comments in the post-show discussion--her high-strung sense of martyrdom makes her a bit unsympathetic, I felt her affection not only for Andy, but adult daughter Claire (wonderfully played by Audrey Francis).

The always fantastic, even legendary, Lois Smith and John Mahoney are terrific here as Carol's parents, smart, sassy, protective, often laughter-inducing and far from the caricatures witty seniors can often be relegated to onstage.

Also routinely terrific, Francis Guinan plays Carol's ex-husband, estranged from daughter Claire in part because of acrimony over his diminished involvement in Andy's life.

Rounding out the cast is Cliff Chamberlain as Mark, a poet and possible paramour of Claire's.

Conducted with British accents, there is much scornful, acerbic, poignant and powerful dialogue in Kinnear's script, which despite not involving any scene changes, never drags a bit. Particularly artful is the way he maneuvers characters out of the family room scene so that a pair or trio of characters can have a private conversation. (The modern art-adorned set design by Walt Spangler of an suburban English house is striking if perhaps representing more comfort, affluence and worldly interests than Carol (the only one who truly lives there) seems to portray.)

Yet while a piece of Steppenwolf marketing for The Herd plays up the wildness of dysfunctional families that often makes for spirited, audience-identifying theater--"Three generations, two surprise guests and one unexpected evening"--not only did I not find the family involved all that dysfunctional, beyond the squabbles and the cackles I most liked observing the wrought-but-caring dynamic among Carol, Claire and, though unseen, Andy.

Carol's speech about constantly fearing Andy's death adds considerable dimension to the narrative, while as the sage if snarky center of the play, the tandem of Mahoney and Smith--as Brian and Patricia--provide much more than comic relief.

So I highly recommend The Herd--which runs through June 7--and would like to think that anyone who sees it at any price, with any level of theatergoing regularity (or lack thereof) should like it plenty.

A patron who I passed on Halsted after the post-show discussion couldn't help gushing, "Wasn't that wonderful."

And I agreed.

Due to Steppenwolf's extremely generous "Twenty for $20" day-of-show ticket discount promotion, I feel especially fortunate to have seen--from just the second row!--such a stellar piece of theater featuring longtime favorites such as Mahoney and Guinan, the delightful Smith, Chamberlain who I've seen onstage numerous times, the stellar Regan, and Francis, who I found to be outstanding.

Yet while the Chicago Tribune's theater critic Chris Jones awarded The Herd 4-stars out of 4, I was just a bit less smitten in deducting 1/2@ from my pinnacle rating.

There was nothing clearly wrong with Kinnear's excellent play, and neither he, the cast, Galati or Steppenwolf can truly be blamed for this, but The Herd just felt a bit too much like a flock of other shows I've seen.

Though neither Mahoney or Guinan did anything to change their status as my favorite Chicago theater actors, the reality is that I've seen each 10+ times before--often at Steppenwolf--and their roles in The Herd seemed a tad too readily familiar.

I was most directly reminded of a play called Tribes, by Nina Raine, which I saw at Steppenwolf early last year. It also featured a highly literate British family screaming numerous profanities at each other in a rather plush domicile, with Regan and Guinan playing the parents of a hearing-impaired son and an unsatisfied daughter.

Obviously, many plays can be similar, and with all I see at Steppenwolf, Goodman, Northlight and elsewhere, that I come across the same actors in somewhat similar roles it actually rather understandable.

In looking back at my ratings/reviews for recent shows that I may be unfairly lumping together in memory, it seems I liked The Herd as much or more than Tribes, The Birthday Party, Other Desert Cities, The Night Alive and other plays about combustible and/or affluent families I've seen in just the last few years, perhaps with Guinan and/or Mahoney in the cast.

So I guess it would be fair to say that, along with much else it gets right, The Herd rises above familiar ground, even if doesn't quite separate itself from the pack all that distinctively.

But this is a trifling criticism most fans of great drama--with considerable humor--should ignore.

Especially if you find yourself with a free evening or weekend afternoon, and ideally discount tickets at the ready, I think you'll savor being roped into following The Herd.

No comments: