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Honest Pint Theatre, in conjunction with the folks at North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre, have produced something extraordinary. Using only six actors and a static set, director David Henderson has brought to life the story of a highly dysfunctional family and how they manage to come back together. Written by Rory Kinnear and billed as a comedy, The Herd has its comedic moments, but there is not a lot to laugh at here. The premise of this play is set in the immediate anticipation of Andy's 21st birthday party, Andy being the son of Carol (Susannah Hough) and Ian (Simon Kaplan). Andy, who is severely disabled, was not expected to reach 19, let alone 21, so this party is supposed to be a real celebration. But getting Andy home from his stay at a nursing facility across town in London is proving problematic, and constant contact with Andy's caretaker by phone is driving Carol up a wall.
Arriving to see Andy is his older sister, Claire (Jess Barbour), and his grandparents, Carol's folks, Patricia (Lenore Field) and Brian (Paul Newell); Brian is particularly proud of the cake he has baked for Andy's party. Claire tells Carol that she has invited a "friend," Mark (Daniel Wilson), but she is being very cagey about their relationship, which only piques the interest of all concerned. Also showing up, uninvited and unannounced, is Ian, Andy's dad, who deserted the family five years earlier and who is now the brunt of the anger of everyone onstage, most particularly Claire, who wants nothing more to do with the man.
Ian proves to be the catalyst that opens floodgates of resentment and anger. At one point, Patricia states flatly to the man's face that she has wished Ian dead, or worse, for what he has done to her daughter. Claire demands, more than once, that her father is not welcome here and must go now. Nevertheless, he stays, which only sends Claire more deeply into her resentment. Carol is attempting to understand that Ian wishes to see Andy for what could possibly be the last time and is attempting, but with only partial success, to understand why Ian has come. To all of this, Brian is a silent observer; whatever his thoughts on his son-in-law are, he is keeping them to himself.
Thrown into this maelstrom is Mark, Claire's unsuspecting (and unannounced) fiancé, himself a performance poet down from Briton. Mark is Scottish, and his accent is lovely. But his presence is more for moral support than to meet his future brother-in-law. Claire has a secret she has told only Mark, and she has chosen today to tell the rest of the family.
The Herd plays out on a beautiful set that is highly functional. Running water in the kitchen, working appliances, and an oft-trod staircase make this house a home. Set designer Tab May built one of those sets we want to move into. And since the family has lived here (both with and without Ian) for over twenty years, the entire family knows it well.
Henderson directs the fire to smolder, until Patricia can hold it no longer and she tells Ian what she thinks of him. Once that bald statement is heard, the others pile on. Ian, to his credit, stands his ground, and at one point lets Carol know the real reason he has left. The fur begins to fly. Throughout the show, Brian, ensconced in an easy chair downstage right, continues to look on quietly.
Secrets come out that make sense, once explained. But it is Claire's announcement, finally put to the family, that brings everyone up short, and Carol, upon hearing it, banishes everyone from the room. She and Claire have a conversation that has been a long time coming. The two of them stick together and understand that this is a situation that will be faced by all the family; Claire knows she is not alone.
Henderson has done a superb job of managing all the relationships that get tangled up onstage. As each revelation is brought out, he makes sure that it is not lost in the floodgates. We begin to understand each one of these characters, and that tiny spark within each that drives them. Though not yet arrived, the character of Andy remains front and center; he is pretty much why and how we have reached this point, after all. We never get to see Andy, but he is a potent presence onstage, nonetheless.
Henderson has gathered a superb cast for this show, with the family members being led by Barbour as daughter Claire and Susannah Hough as the matriarch of the family. Hough is also the co-artistic director of Honest Pint. The rest of the cast also have quite a theatrical footprint around the Triangle: Field was an artistic director for the Common Ground Theatre, once a mainstay in the Durham theatre scene, as well as a faculty member at NC State. Newell for ten years was the manager of the Playwrights' Roundtable, a group who wrote and produced plays at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro. His latest work, The Devil and Mark Twain, will debut in March. Kaplan is fresh from a show at Burning Coal, The Weir. That his character in that show and this one are dissimilar in every respect, including physical appearance, is a salute to the chameleonesque quality of the actor. Lastly, Wilson has performed some of the most challenging roles in the Triangle, among them, the lead role of Pale in Sonorous Road's Burn This and the Polish immigrant Leon Czolgosz in Theatre in the Park's Assassins. The sheer magnitude of talent on this stage was evident as the climax to this show came crashing down.
To bring a show of this stature and finesse to life onstage is no mean feat, and everyone concerned, from the director on down, is to be commended for a dynamic and stunning performance. This was one of those performances that was greater than the sum of its parts, and we left the theater in awe of those who have worked tirelessly to make it so. This is what theatre is all about, and you owe it to yourself to see this show!
The Herd continues through Sunday, Feb, 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.