We seldom credit our imaginations enough for their part in enjoying fiction. Every book you read requires some input on your part to visualize the words of the author, you place a bit of yourself in fictional characters in order to relate to them and comprehend their motives, and there’s a widely held belief that the strength behind horror is not what you are shown but what your imagination conjures up as you await each shocking reveal. What I’m getting at here is that sometimes what you don’t see creates a stronger than image than what’s placed in front of you. Any depiction of the eponymous Godot would never satisfy, but the figure you’ve built up in your mind based on minute details about the man can fill that void. The results can be something much more beautiful or tragic than the original artist could have ever conceived on their own.
The Herd by Rory Kinnear depicts the 21st birthday of Andy, a young man stricken with multiple birth defects that have left him wheelchair-bound, wheezy, weak, and with “the mental age of ten months.” The play floats between his family squabbling as they gather to celebrate and await his arrival, and the offstage conflicts of getting Andy home to celebrate, communicated entirely through one-sided phone calls.
As a living room, family drama, The Herd hangs on the interplay between the family members. Kinnear’s script allows time for just about every pairing of characters are given a scene to develop their relationships further, all while pivoting around the focal point that is Andy and his birthday. While they all have a solid amount of stage time, much emphasis is placed upon Andy’s mother, Carol (Jan Phillips), who wearily looks after her son the most. Much of the tension in the play comes not from Andy’s illness but from the 21 years of stress and concern affecting Carol and her relationship to her family members. She’s often short with others, particularly her daughter, Claire (Amber Quick), but Phillips emphasizes that her frustration is never from a place hatred or annoyance. She’s simply at the end of her rope. Quick (as Claire) gave a solid performance throughout as she clearly hides something from her family through visible agitation much of which is given a chance to vent when Ian (Michael Miller), her and Andy’s estranged father, enters the picture. There’s an odd paradox here in that Claire and Carol’s incessantly hostile dismissals of Ian showcase the strengths of Philips and Quick’s acting while demonstrating the weaker aspects of Kinnear’s script. While Ian’s past actions are reprehensible (and I often feel they insinuate more occurred than is spoken) I can’t help but feel sympathy for him as he’s essentially bullied while trying to see his son for his birthday. The characters delve into this later, but it’s still a bit hard to watch at times. Miller (as Ian) is understandably likeable as his character is doing everything he can to win the approval of his daughter and see his son; he really gives off the impression of a man who will stop at nothing to make amends despite the constant negativity thrown at him.
Hostilities aside, there are two characters who are the most constant sources of levity and lightheartedness within the production, Andy’s grandfather, Brian (David Jarrott), and Claire’s boyfriend, Mark (Steve Williams). From his first appearance, Jarrott offers a constant sense of ease to the room as he mostly stays bound to his chair, even going so far as to defuse one of the more tense scenes in the play simply by entering the room singing. His quips and smiles leave you happy to be in his company, and remind you of every joyful, joking grandparent you’ve ever met. However, Williams (as Mark) is easily the calmest presence in the room as the outsider to the family (knowing only before Claire going into the plot). He’s a tad soft-spoken at times, but, similar to Jarrott’s performance, carries himself with calm confidence that makes him undeniably likeable. This is certainly a plus given that many discussions prior to his entrance are dedicated to whether or not the family will approve of him. Furthermore, as the outsider, he’s the only one to take Ian at face value and offer the fellow a break. And finally we have Patricia (Janelle Buchanan), Andy’s grandmother, who is the quintessential mother in-law we all fear to have. While loving and doting to her daughter and her family, Patricia is easily the most vocal critic of anything and anyone, and usually the first to voice her opinion. Naturally it goes without saying that she is arguably the harshest of all the characters towards Ian. While the play takes place in Carol’s house, it’s clear through her mannerisms that Buchanan holds significant influence over the actions within its walls. There’s a cold severity about her that you want to detest but can’t help but find endearing as she commands your respect. This isn’t to say she can’t be kind. Buchanan easily finds the balance between loving matriarch to hostile defender. All in all, there isn’t a combination of two characters who didn’t play well off one another. They’re a solid cast with all the critical caring found in any family.
It should be stated here that despite the cast of characters (save one) are all listed in the program through their relation to Andy, there is never an onstage appearance of the young man, but we are given a solid idea of him and his condition through brief passages here and there. Much of the impact behind the character comes from Kinnear’s gradual reveal of his physical and mental state, beginning simply with medications and a caretaker but leading to descriptions of his symptoms and life-expectancy that suggest he suffers from hyper-potent combination of Downs Syndrome and cystic fibrosis. There’s a brief dialogue early on in which two characters discuss the value of addressing someone by their actual name as a means of recognizing one another as human beings, and yet through Andy’s physical absence, not to mention the ways in which his family speak of him, they unintentionally rob him of his humanity in the name of his health and safety.
The technical aspects of the production all flow together nicely as well. Desiderio Roybal, fresh off of Jarrott Production’s recent production of The Price, has created another solid set laden with all the sleek modernism expected of an upper-middle class British home. And while it’s a relatively minor note, I’m always thankful for a sound designer (Craig Brock in this case) who has a play’s phones ring from the actual device as opposed to an overhead speaker. Call it a pet peeve of mine, but it always aids in immersion for me. However, there is one flaw in the production which by no means is a deal breaker but is a constant presence throughout. The accents. Taking place “outside the M-25 in London” The Herd naturally utilizes British accents to complete the setting. Unfortunately, there were multiple instances of the actors’ American accents slipping through oftentimes leading to a single line fluctuating in tone. In the whole cast it was Amber Quick and Michael Miller who were able to escape this trap the providing the most solid British accents. Eventually I was able to ignore it as I became thoroughly engrossed in the play, and to suggest that this causes any severe damage to the production is far from the truth.
The Herd is at once an uplifting and tragic look at familial bonds as the play swiftly takes you to emotional highs and lows with little warning. Some of the strongest scenes on polar ends of the tonal spectrum will be replaced with the exact opposite emotional moment with such haste that you’ll be left in shock. One second you’ll laugh at a silly anecdote and the next you’ll dread something as simple as ringing phone. Emotionally potent and strikingly beautiful, The Herd is not one to miss.
Jarrott Productions’ The Herd continues playing at the Trinity Street Players every Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays a 2:30pm until April 30th (with the performance on Saturday, April 29th at 2pm).