The character of Andy never shows up for the 21st birthday party being thrown for him by his family in The Herd, yet there's scarcely a moment in this drama by British actor Rory Kinnear when his presence isn't keenly felt. That's because Andy was born severely disabled, so for the two decades of his life, he's been the focal point of this small clan, his health always on the knife's edge, necessitating constant attention and adding relentless pressures to the lives of parents Carol and Ian, and older sister Claire. Indeed, the pressures proved too much for Ian, who walked out on the family while Andy was still a boy. Subsequently, single mother Carol's care for her son has all but consumed her life, leading to a relationship with her daughter that is, at best, strained. As Carol, Claire, and Carol's parents Patricia and Brian gather and anticipate Andy's arrival from the institution where he lives, some of the stress fractures caused by their existence with Andy come into view, but it's when the estranged Ian shows up uninvited on Carol's doorstep that the full impact Andy has had on these people becomes evident: the burdens, the tensions, the damaging choices, the banked fires of rancor and regret.
In this way, Jarrott Productions' The Herd carries narrative and thematic echoes of the company's previous show, The Price. That Arthur Miller play also turned on the way a family member's precarious health and the decisions regarding who would assume the role of caretaker and who would walk away from it set the direction of lives and ruptured relationships, and it's the unexpected appearance of a relation whose connection with the family has been long severed that opens the Pandora's box of longtime, deep-seated resentment and rage. In both plays, the absent family member who's been the catalyst for all these decisions and the emotions that spill out from them is ultimately less important than the present characters' sense of self-sacrifice, justification, and blame that surface and are hurled from this character to that. Part of what made the airing of these ingrained grudges compelling in The Price is that Miller set the argument after the ill family member had died, and his belongings had to be dispensed with. The status quo had changed, which made the dramatic issue: Will these characters take advantage of this opportunity to change now, too? In The Herd, Kinnear has Andy still living, which gives his characters the luxury to retreat into set behaviors, old patterns that they have no reason to change. In this staging by Robert Tolaro, an experienced cast really digs up the characters' buried attitudes with fervent conviction, but it's hard to see where there's any possibility for change. The characters' opinions about one another, about what happened before, and about any present motivations appear calcified. In the play's closing scene, as another crisis sends Andy to the hospital, the family responds like an efficient EMT team, quickly grabbing bags and essentials, and heading to the car for an extended stay. It's fascinating as a portrayal of what a family for which this is a regular occurrence does when an emergency arises, but it also leaves the characters off the dramatic hook. They can do pretty much what they've been doing for years, and that's what they seem ready to do.
That said, within the hardened shells of his characters, Kinnear has planted seeds of humor, which provides at least some breaks in the tension. On opening night, the intensity with which the actors played the drama tended to overshadow those comic lines, but with a cast as seasoned as this one is, perhaps they'll strike more of a balance between the darkness and light as the run continues. That would not only benefit the show on an emotional level but also make it easier to see the ties that bind these family members together as well as the fissures that break them apart.
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