Admittedly, the synopsis for the dystopian kitchen-sink drama The Children at Studio Theatre didn’t tremendously excite me initially, notwithstanding the interest in acclaimed British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. But Studio has earned the benefit of my doubt and I thought there must be something to it—it’s probably going to shine or sizzle in the writing and acting. And I was right.
Penned by Kirkwood and sprucely directed by Studio Artistic Director David Muse, The Children is an intimate, measured uncoiling of creeping uncertainty, astute reflection and smart, earthy humor.
Set in a remote cottage on the coast of England in the near-term aftermath of a local nuclear disaster reminiscent of the 2011 catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, the drama is often gripping and thought-provoking. Not so much for its larger theme of human consumption of and responsibility for the natural world and the question of what one generation owes the next—but more for the human meltdown on display during the characters’ brief interaction.
The Children notably stands out for being exclusively a showcase for older actors playing characters in their 60s. Married couple and retired nuclear physicists Hazel (Jeanne Paulsen) and Robin (Richard Howard) reside in the cottage near their former farm (which is in the radioactive “exclusion zone,”) when Rose (Naomi Jacobson), a former colleague and one-time flame of Robin’s, shows up unannounced after nearly four decades—with an existential offer.
The Children’s prime moral bind is presented near the end of the play, but that didn’t bother me. I was hooked by the carefully crafted reveal of information about both the ecological calamity and the three leads’ shared past. The loaded interaction—especially between the two women— is palpable behind the agitated small talk about kids, past friends and experiences.
We learn that all three scientists helped build and used to work at the power plant at the center of the disaster. We find out what life has been like for Hazel and Robin, who’ve decided to stay nearby since the incident, living with the threat of contamination, rationed food and water, and intermittent electricity. We discover how the lives of the characters have differed in the decades since they saw each other last. And we pick up on clues in the characters’ chemistry which may shed some light on their past as well as what may be coming. Hazel seems to resent Rose for her outgoing, carefree personality, the fact that she never had children and for her fling with Robin. Rose meanwhile exudes a teasing charm and self-assurance, and we’ll find out why as the play progresses.
The Children from Studio Theatre closes June 9, 2019. Details and tickets
Paulsen is scarily convincing in the role of Hazel, playing the woman as fraught with deep-seated insecurity and barely concealed hostility toward those who seem to have it easy like Rose. Even her aspirational mantra “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live,” is laced with menace. Paulsen’s authentic and vulnerable performance sets the edgy tone for the entire play.
Jacobson is more the tight-lipped receiver of the two women, reacting to Paulsen’s controlled frenzy. She holds her cards close while radiating a sexual currency that comes as naturally as breathing. Jacobson, playful and shrewd, excels in this type of role.
Howard rounds out the threesome in the relatively less-interesting part of Robin, at once genial and parrying.
The production design is top-notch, adding much to a deeper viewing experience. Scenic designer Tom Kamm created a handsome, realistic set, complete with lived-in details, which serves to confine the energy of the drama while Miriam Nilofa Crowe and Broken Chord respectively create the passing of time and the world outside through artful lighting and sound. The Children is sincere and provocative in its wind-up but seems to fizzle out in its last third once Rose finally discloses why she’s come. The motion she puts to Hazel and Robin—stand-ins for the Baby Boomer generation and its boundless appetites—makes for an intriguing impasse, but I was much more fascinated and moved by the presentation on marriage, aging, retirement and the confrontation with the disruptive power of the past.
The Children by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by David Muse. Featuring Naomi Jacobson, Jeanne Paulsen and Richard Howard. Scenic design by Tom Kamm. Costume design by Nephelie Andonyadis. Lighting design by Miriam Nilofa Crowe. Sound design by Broken Chord. Anthony O. Bullock is the stage manager. Presented by Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.