Theater review by Alex Huntsberger
We don’t hear much about offspring until the home stretch of The Children, Lucy Kirkwood’s astounding 2016 play. In director Jonathan Berry’s sensational production, it’s clear that this absence is partly the point: Kirkwood’s characters, a married pair of retired nuclear engineers and their former colleague, are too wrapped up in their own concerns to pay the kids much heed. In the aftermath of a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster off the British coast, Hazel (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Robin (Yasen Peyankov) plan to live out the rest of their days in their remote cottage. That, at least, is what Hazel thinks; Robin is less sure. When their old friend Rose (Ora Jones) abruptly shows up on their doorstep—giving Hazel such a fright that she punches her in the nose—it unsettles them in different ways. After some Pinteresque not-very-niceties, Rose reveals the true purpose for her visit, and the play’s kitchen-sink concerns begin colliding with global ones. As in a nuclear reaction, what these collisions release has great power.
The Children is a perfect fit for both Berry, an actor’s director, and Steppenwolf, an actor’s theater. Kirkwood’s very funny drama is built almost entirely out of odd, endearing grace notes that are played sublimely by the three stellar actors, especially Brooks. And just when it threatens to become a tidal wave of intergenerational agitprop—a Millennial author imploring Baby Boomers to finally do their part—it recedes into the eddying currents of these three strange people and the lives they’ve chosen to lead. (It even leaves room for a dance break.) Berry’s production emphasizes Kirkwood’s estuarial mixture of character and theme with a set, by designer Chelsea M. Warren, that situates Robin and Hazel’s home on the edge of a cliff: a cozy homestead at the mercy of more elemental forces. Like the ghostly church bells of the vanished seaside village that Rose insists she has heard clear as day, The Children is impossible to ignore and equally hard to forget.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With Ora Jones, Yasen Peyankov, Janet Ulrich Brooks. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.