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Chicago by John Olson

The Herd
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of Billy Elliot

Audrey Francis, Cliff Chamberlain, and Lois Smith
On the way in to Steppenwolf Theatre to see this new play by Rory Kinnear, my theatregoing companion asked what else Kinnear had written. I didn't know the answer at the time and was astonished learn it on reading the program. The answer? Nothing. This is his first play and it looks nothing like anyone's first play. The playwright, an actor whose name you may recognize from the recent James Bond films or The Imitation Game, has followed the advice often given to beginning writers to "write what you know" and he's explained in interviews that The Herd is inspired by his own family experiences. The 37-year-old Kinnear has an older sister who has been quadriplegic and severely mentally disabled since birth, and who despite having been given a life expectancy of just 19 years, is alive today, under the care of Kinnear's mother.

The Herd, which had its world premiere at London's Bush Theatre in 2013 and is enjoying its U.S. premiere with this production, concerns a family with a similarly mentally disadvantaged child; his name is Andy and the play takes place on his 21st birthday. In a new-looking and smart (if not quite posh) suburban house, Andy's mother Carol (Molly Regan) is finishing up preparations for his birthday party while on the phone with his professional caregiver, who will be bringing Andy to the party, but whose arrival has been delayed by a personal matter. The first guest to arrive is Andy's 33-year-old sister Claire (Audrey Francis) who asks if there will be room for a "friend" (Cliff Chamberlain) whom she's invited to the party. She's followed by Carol's parents Brian and Patricia (John Mahoney and Lois Smith), both in their late seventies or early eighties, I'd say. Both are as quick-witted as anyone, though Brian has mobility issues. There's much quick banter and very funny examples of dry British humor, but the tone remains that of gentle jabs among family until Ian (Francis Guinan), the father who left the family years earlier, arrives unexpectedly and unwelcome at the door. Things get intense as everyone's resentment of Ian is unleashed.

Kinnear's story occurs in real-time over 105 intermissionless minutes and that, along with his extremely spare use of exposition, gives it a naturalistic even if fast-paced feel. We don't learn many specifics, such as the family members' professions, sources of income, the specifics of Ian's departure, or the precise location of their home. As one who likes to have context, I missed that, but it's not really necessary. The quickness of the characters' wit and the upscale home as designed by Walt Spangler establish these are well-to-do, well educated people, and their relationships with each other are revealed mostly through feelings rather than by detailing past events. Claire feels somewhat emotionally neglected by Carol, who has been consumed with caring for Andy, and both of them deeply resent Ian's withdrawal from the family. Claire's partial alienation from her parents may explain why she's initially reluctant to disclose that her guest Mark is more than a friend—he's her lover and possibly more.

Under Frank Galati's direction, the cast navigates territory that ranges from the mundane to the emotional. These people know each other well—so, for the most part, the quirks of each are taken in stride. Molly Regan displays a British stoicism and steely strength along with her witty tongue. As her mother, Lois Smith has the perfect cockiness of the older person who has nothing to lose by saying what she thinks. Playing Regan's father, John Mahoney is exceedingly good-natured—accepting his very limited mobility and resulting loss of dignity with grace and humor. Audrey Francis captures all the angles of Claire's complicated character: anxiety over the next step of her relationship with Mark, and resentments of different sorts toward each of her parents. Francis Guinan shows the long-absent dad to be remorseful, but with his limits as to how far he'll allow himself to be beaten up. Cliff Chamberlain is totally charming as Mark, the outsider and possibly newest member of this clan, and he gives a fully organic performance of a character who is the least quirky of this bunch.

The sharp wit of the characters and the natural, believable performances of the cast make The Herd worth watching, even though nothing horribly surprising happens and no profound truths revealed. It's as if we're in Mark's shoes—observing a new family, on our best behavior but wondering what the heck is going on with these folks.

The Herd will play Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through June 7, 2015. For tickets or information visit or call 312-335-1650.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson

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