Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 12, 2017
The Children by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by James Macdonald. Scenic and costume design by Miriam Buether. Lighting and projection design by Peter Mumford. Sound design by Max Pappenheim. Cast: Francesca Annis, Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay.
Opening tonight at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Friedman Theatre, The Children arrives here after a well-received run in London, with its original cast and its director James Macdonald on board. That intact transfer is a fortuitous one, resulting in a polished ensemble piece that captures a sense of the characters' history, both as they relate to each other and as they are representative of the aging cohort of baby boomers to which they belong.
Their shared past is a very important structural element of the play. It kicks in the moment that Rose (Francesca Annis) unexpectedly shows up at the cottage of a pair of old friends, Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and her husband Robin (Ron Cook), both retired nuclear physicists. Hazel is more than a little surprised to see Rose after nearly four decades have passed. ("Don't take this the wrong way," she says, "but we heard you'd died!"). Yet it isn't long before the two women are having a cozy catch-up. Robin will join them later when he gets home from tending to the couple's cattle.
Within the exchange of pleasantries, however, something is clearly amiss. Max Pappenheim's soundscape instills an air of disquietude, and Miriam Buether's beige and chalky set design gives the rustic cottage, located on the east coast of Britain, the appearance of a weekend retreat that has become by necessity a more permanent home for its occupants. We soon learn there is no potable water; the day is marked by rolling and unpredictable electrical blackouts; and the loo often backs up. Hazel and Robin are having to make do in the face of something much bigger than themselves, a catastrophic sequence of events like the one that occurred at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan in 2011, something that could never happen, except in the obviousness of hindsight: an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown.
Refugees from the "exclusion zone," where their former home sits uninhabitable, the couple may remind you of the kind of stiff-upper-lip Brits who rolled up their sleeves and made the best of things during World War II. They live off the land, practice yoga, make their own wine, light their lanterns, and use their worry time to fuss about their daughter, with whom they keep in touch by cell phone. Anything to stave off even thinking about the possibility of mortality, "the slow descent into the coffin," as Hazel puts it.
Playwright Lucy Kirkwood does a wonderful job of revealing the details of the accident by weaving bits of information into conversations that are otherwise laced with domestic chatter, warm and not-so-warm memories of the intersecting relationships among the three characters, and the sort of gallows humor that is intended to keep despair at bay. That it is failing to do so is made all the clearer after Robin shows up. Despite a cheery tone, buoyed by generous amounts of homemade parsnip wine, we see a man who is clinging to the edge of an eroding cliff. It is also just before Robin's appearance that Hazel gets around to asking the long-withheld question, "Rose? Why have you come here?"
Kirkwood takes her time (some might say too much time) in getting around to answering that question. She wants to make her case first, and she does so by ramping up the sense of dread that lies just beneath the surface. In the midst of calming domestic chores, like the making of a salad or the slicing of bread, or recreating a dance routine that Hazel made up years before, there are unwanted yet unstoppable intrusions: waste water from a recalcitrant toilet, clicks from a Geiger counter, the inexplicable appearance of blood. With a future resting precariously on uncertainty, the playwright presses her characters along the singular path they must take, if not for themselves, then for the sake of "the children," the next generation and beyond.
The Children disturbs not so much because of the accident (scary enough, but it is not the final apocalypse), but because of how it reminds us of the precariousness of life in a time of potentially cataclysmic destruction, a good deal of it brought about by the generation that thought they could have it all, without regard to the messes they would leave behind. It's been grand, Kirkwood seems to be saying, but now it's time to pay the piper.