Hilarity, heartbreak come together as a family breaks down in ‘The Herd’

Deep explorations of family dynamics and personal tragedies are certainly no stranger to the stage, but what is more unusual is to find those classic tropes of the Anglo-American stage mixed with broad comedy and sitcom-esque set-ups.

Such is the case, though, with British playwright Rory Kinnear’s 2013 drama “The Herd,” which is now receiving its Texas premiere courtesy of Jarrott Productions at Trinity Street Theatre.

“The Herd” tells the story of a middle-class family living in the London suburbs as they await the arrival of Andy, a young man with severe mental and physical disabilities, for his 21st birthday party. While they wait, Claire, Andy’s sister, surprises her mother and grandparents with the arrival of her boyfriend, Mark. Meanwhile, Andy’s father —long estranged from the rest of the family — also shows up. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue.

Kinnear does a spectacular job balancing the masks of comedy and tragedy throughout the play, infusing the characters with both familial warmth and deep-seated, simmering resentments. The entire story is told in one act, with no intermission, unfolding in real time, a dramaturgical challenge that Kinnear deftly tackles by skillfully maneuvering characters on- and off-stage to create a series of confrontations both comedic and, sometimes, cruel.

As one might expect, the success of a play like this relies largely on the cast. Director Robert Tolaro and the design team support the story mostly by staying unobtrusive and allowing the cast to play within the immaculately realistic set crafted by designer Desiderio Roybal. Tolaro’s faith in his cast pays off, as all the performances are strong, and some are quite staggering.

Amber Quick imbues Claire with a deep inner life that comes out through both vivaciousness and despair, leaving her ultimate motivations something of a mystery to the audience, to her family and, perhaps, even to herself. Janelle Buchanan, as Andy’s grandmother Patricia, presents a much more externalized character, who vacillates between an icy sense of superiority and a fierce maternal instinct to protect her loved ones. Caught betwixt the two is Jan Phillips’ Carol, Andy’s mother, whose love for her son is visibly breaking her down even as she presents a surface veneer of holding everything together.

“The Herd” is far from the flashiest of productions, which is fitting for what is a somewhat subdued text, where the drama and laughs all arise from realistic characters in relatable situations. It is a quiet, stoic presentation of a family pushed to the brink by the tragedies of fate and the choices that its members have made in reaction to circumstance. Jarrott Productions’ presentation of that story is very direct and simple, in a thoroughly intimate and moving way.

‘The Herd’ 
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday through April 30 (2 p.m. matinee and no evening performance April 29)
Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.
Cost: $18-$30
Information: jarrottproductions.com

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