Theatre review: “Thicker Than Water” feels unfinished

From the August 14, 2014 edition

Relationships between fathers and sons have fascinated us going back at least as far as that little roadside dustup between Laius and Oedipus. So when director John Dranschak and actors Michael Garrett Herring and Nick Lingnofski conceived Red Herring Productions’ “Thicker Than Water,” the age difference between the two performers naturally suggested a parent-child exercise.

“Exercise” may be the operant word here because the three principals are equally fascinated by the improvisational techniques of the celebrated British theatre, television and film director Mike Leigh. He famously builds works up from the foundation of character before they begin to interact. When the process works, as in Leigh’s 1997 “Secrets and Lies,” the results can be achingly real. But not even Leigh manages to pull it off every time.

Passionate, sincere and compact though it may be, “Thicker Than Water” comes off more as an academic assignment than a fully realized drama. Herring plays Matt McDougal, the deeply religious father, a veteran of World War II injured at Midway, now dying of cancer. Herring brings a gentle strength to Matt in his July 4, 1979 altercation with Vietnam veteran son Jack, after a three-and-a-half-year estrangement. Lingnofski’s proudly irreligious essayist Jack matches Matt with an equal and opposite ardor.

The two lug a lot of sound and fury and backstory onto the Riffe Center Studio Two stage. But what may be cathartic for the trio of brave artists who fathered “Thicker Than Water” feels unfinished from an audience perspective.

Photo by Elizabeth Beattie

Photo caption: Michael Garrett Herring as Matt McDougal, left to right, Nick Lingnofski as Jack McDougal in the Red Herring Productions' original work Thicker Than Water.