By Shelley A. Sackett
Playwright Lucy Kirkwood had wanted to write about climate change for quite a while when the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan provided the impetus and inspiration. With “The Children,” a must-see production enjoying its Boston premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company through March 28, she has succeeded in crafting a thoughtful and provocative three-character play that manages to raise profound existential and moral questions while slowing peeling back the layers of this three-some’s long and complicated history.
It is also one heck of a riveting eco-thriller/emotional detective story brilliantly acted by the inimitable stage luminaries Tyrees Allen, Karen MacDonald and Paula Plum.
The lights first come up almost mid-sentence on a rustic kitchen where Rose (MacDonald) stands, trying to staunch the flow of blood as it gushes from her nose and stains her shirt. Hazel (Plum) enters with a towel, trying to assist, but Rose waves her away. Rose asks after Hazel’s children. Hazel casually mentions she thought Rose was dead. Their banter is informal and the tone almost familial, but it is clear from the get-go that theirs is a tricky relationship and that there is something uneasy and troubling in this cottage.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Hazel and her husband, Robin (Allen), both retired, have taken refuge in their country cottage because their pastoral English seaside community has been devasted by a nuclear power plant disaster caused by an earthquake and tsunami. Their farm/home now lies in the toxic exclusion zone. All now in their 60s, the three met as 20-something physicists and engineers when they worked together building the power plant that just melted down.
Rose clothes her unannounced arrival—Hazel hasn’t seen her in 38 years—as concern about the disaster and how it has affected Hazel and Robin. But all is not what meets the eye and it soon becomes clear that the three share a complicated entanglement and that Rose’s visit is neither spontaneous nor agenda-less. Yet the question remains: Why is she there?
Kirkwood masterfully delineates her characters, revealing their personality infrastructures slowly, deliberately and subtly. Hazel and Robin raised four children and Hazel, even in her new post-apocalyptic existence where the air is radioactive and electricity is rationed, maintains her rigid domestic and yoga regimens. She is dogmatic in her belief that one must adapt to survive. “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live,” she practically spits at Rose. She is determined to live to a ripe od age and to die on her own terms. She is beholden to none; she has paid her dues.
Rose, on the other hand, never married, spent time in America and has been prescribed birth control pills to extinguish her fomenting libido. As it turns out, that treatment has been only minimally effective, as the smoldering embers of an old triangle soon reveal. She is the wild child yin to Hazel’s buttoned-up yang, mischievously clogging Hazel’s toilet by deliberately doing a “number two” after being asked not to and defiantly smoking cigarette after cigarette.
Robin is the fulcrum between the two, the double-dipper who ended up with Hazel but who still ignites in Rose’s proximity. He copes with his new reality by continuing to farm and care for his cows despite the risk posed by prolonged exposure to radiation. He seems rudderless and passive, going with the flow (including marrying Hazel when she became pregnant despite his arguable preference for Rose), creating no wake.
Over an hour into the 100-minute intermission-less show, Rose’s purpose is revealed: she has come to recruit Hazel and Robin to clean up the radioactive mess their shortsighted and negligent engineering knowingly created. “We built it. We’re responsible. I feel the need to clean it up,” she admonishes. Furthermore, she believes it is their duty to trade places (and, by implication, deaths) with the 20-somethings assigned the task of scrubbing away the radioactive debris. “It’s our duty to a child to die at some point,” the childless Rose chides. “I’ll know when I’ve had enough,” Rose yells back, later admitting, “I don’t know how to want less.”
No spoilers here about Robin and Hazel’s choices, but Kirkwood asks some deep and soul-searching questions. If we know the facts about climate change, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behavior? Is it enough to stop contributing to the damage or is there a duty to fix what we created and are leaving the next generation? And who are the real children referred to in the title: those who are the actual children, powerless victims inheriting a flawed world or their parents, who act like children with their selfish irresponsibility and assumptive impunity?
“The Children”. By Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 537 Tremont Street, Boston through March 28.