Although The Children is a new play with sharp relevance to our present moment, there’s no talk of blowhard authoritarians. The only computer that appears onstage isn’t used to either spread or combat fake news: Rose (Laila Robins) cracks her laptop to play a vintage R&B jam for an impromptu line dance that provides a poignant moment of joy in this desperately sad encounter.
The setting is established by a miniature landscape suspended in front of a scrim as the audience enters the Jungle Theater: a lonely house on a rocky landscape. When the scrim lifts and the house flies away, we find ourselves inside. Rose stands in the kitchen (realized in absorbing detail by set designer Chelsea M. Warren), bleeding from her nose.
The cause of the nosebleed, we learn, was an instinctive reaction by the surprised owner of the house, Hazel (Linda Kelsey). She and her husband, Robin (Stephen Yoakam), have retreated to the property after their other house was flooded by a natural disaster that also caused a meltdown at the nuclear reactor where, years ago, all three of the sixtysomething characters worked together as engineers.
The events that unfold in Lucy Kirkwood’s 2016 play, presented here in the first U.S. production outside of its acclaimed Broadway run, cover familiar territory with a wry, existential twist. The setting has an end-of-the-world quality, but the characters aren’t surviving an apocalypse, just an acute reminder of their own mortality, and our planet’s. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, except when it’s radiation.
Or aging. Rose, Hazel, and Robin aren’t getting any younger, and they have regrets. Some of them involve each other: Robin and Rose, we surmise early on, have a history. That creates a love triangle that Kirkwood uses in a sort of dramaturgical sleight-of-hand. While we’re following the romantic revelations, we’re also learning more about the nature of the nuclear crisis, and the about larger issues at stake as the characters face an unexpected moral challenge.
Director Casey Stangl and her superb cast maintain complete command of this material’s tragicomic tone, bringing a Bergmanesque gravity to Kirkwood’s meditation on the fragility of life. The play’s title refers to unseen offspring, but it could also describe these mature adults who once were children themselves. All three actors are masterful in this perfectly honed ensemble piece.
The play’s emotional punch is so slow-building that you may not fully feel it until hours after the play. While accessible and engaging, with creative flourishes of stagecraft, The Children doesn’t go for easy catharsis. The end of times may or may not be upon us, but the end will one day come for all of us, whether through ecological disaster or something more mundane.
In a quiet line that seems to encompass a world of lifetimes, Hazel admits with unnecessary shame, “I don’t know how to want less.”
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