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Welcome to The Herd

by Martha Lavey

Designer Johann Engels, friend to playwright Rory Kinnear, was in town designing for the Lyric Opera two years ago. The Steppenwolf costume shop, where I met him, was building the opera’s costumes. He handed me a copy of The Herd and said, “This is a play for Steppenwolf.” He was certainly not the first person who has handed me a play with that assertion. I read THE HERD and was really taken with it. That summer, three separate friends had been to London and seen THE HERD in its premiere production at the Bush Theatre, all of them reporting how much they loved it. We assembled a reading of the play with ensemble members—several of whom you’ll see in the production—and collectively decided to produce the play. I think the reason the play struck a chord with each of the people I encountered in its path to Steppenwolf is that the writing is witty and smart and really gratifying and that most importantly, the play is about a family. A complicated family, a family with the very particular challenge of a seriously disabled child, a family whose life is shaped by its milieu in suburban London—but first and presidingly, three generations of a family. They face the experiences of birth, death, divorce, how to care for one another in need—the same experiences that define families everywhere. Plays about families are particularly suited to Steppenwolf—the ensemble is a family of our making. I think too, the fact that our playwright, Rory Kinnear, is also a wonderful actor, speaks to why the play feels so right for Steppenwolf. Rory continues a healthy tradition of playwrights at our theater who have also spent time as actors. Just within our ensemble, Frank Galati, Tracy Letts, Bruce Norris, Tarell McCraney and Eric Simonson have all been or continue to be actors. In recent seasons, playwrights Mona Mansour, Lisa D’Amour, Heidi Schreck and Annie Baker have all also worked as actors. Their instinct for what works on stage is supported by their time as practitioners on the stage. Suffice it to say that the combination of a play about family, written by a playwright/actor sits happily upon an ensemble of actors. I don’t want to discuss the plot of THE HERD. A great deal of its pleasure happens when we experience, along with the characters, the surprise of events. Instead, I will just point to a couple of things in the writing that added pleasure and depth to my experience of the play. There is a very gratifying level of attention paid to language in THE HERD, which is a pleasure in itself, but is significant as well to the psychological territory that Rory is mining: the way in which words can be weapons, or conversely, the currency of intimacy. Carol is particularly adept at using language to control the room and we witness how her verbal facility is both a gift and a curse—it makes her effective in expressing her will, but frustratingly impenetrable in her emotional life. Further, Rory is able to introduce, glancingly and naturally, the wisdom of Shakespeare into the play. As Patricia explains, Brian is the only man in his Shakespeare class, currently studying LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST. Later Brian refers to another of the plays, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, invoking Portia’s “The quality of mercy” speech. Both plays are characterized by their invocation of poetry and their lively wordplay. The reference to LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST perhaps suggests the jousting between men and women as they negotiate their relationships; likewise, the deep wisdom of Portia in asking for a transcendent mercy alerts us to a similar theme in THE HERD. I point also to the various permutations of parenthood in the play, one of its central themes. Rory is asking some hard questions about parenting. The one germane to Carol is perhaps the most complicated and agonizing: has she allowed the tremendous need of her disabled child to so define her life that her entire identity and pride depends upon her exclusive ownership of that relationship? I think the questions that Rory raises in relation to parenting will feel close to any parent. The delicate art of separating one’s own need from the need of one’s child is a challenge that any parent must navigate, striking while it is in a situation with a disabled child. I am moved by the challenge that Patricia and Brian experience in their witness of their daughter Carol as a parent: they watch their child being consumed by her role as a parent. And moved too, as Carol must witness her daughter Claire’s conflicting emotions about parenting. That generational double vision, that witness of the child/parent is deeply human and deeply complicated. I love that Rory explores the terrain. He does so with a wit and wisdom that are lightly carried and dramatically gratifying. I am very pleased that Steppenwolf is able to animate this family play with so many members of the Steppenwolf family: our director, Frank Galati; and in our cast, ensemble members John Mahoney, Lois Smith, Molly Regan, and Fran Guinan.