The room is a very modestly furnished kitchen: mismatched chairs around a table, a miniature refrigerator, a scruffy but cozy-looking armchair, slightly out of place. But this mundane setting is skewed at an angle onstage, as if set within a slightly tilted shoebox.
It’s just the first indication that “The Children,” a simmering, ultimately searing drama by Lucy Kirkwood about three people reckoning with the aftermath of a nuclear accident, will sketch a portrait of a dark future in which human lives may be upended (or ended) by the unexamined pursuit of technological advancement.
The production, imported from London’s Royal Court Theatre with its superb three-member cast – Francesca Annis, Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay – and its director, James MacDonald, intact, is a bold and admirable choice for Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway venue, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. It is particularly daring as a holiday-time offering: If you’re looking for a treat for, um, the children, “The Children” may not be the perfect theatrical stocking-stuffer.
It is, however, a quiet but exquisitely well-observed slice of life, set in an all-too-easily foreseeable future, when life itself has become, well, more thinly sliced. The lights rise on Annis’s Rose standing in the kitchen, blood dripping from her nose down her chest and onto her shirt, a look of firm stoicism on her face. Findlay’s Hazel bustles to her aid. It seems Hazel had inadvertently struck Rose in the face when Rose came up behind her. Hazel wasn’t expecting her, and she had also, she sheepishly confesses, heard that Rose was dead; hence her startled reaction. (The nosebleed will turn out to be a chilling bit of dramatic foreshadowing.)
As they set about catching up, and of course making tea, that traditional British social emollient, Kirkwood weaves into the half-flowing, half-faltering dialogue the background the characters share. Rose and Hazel, now in their sixties, were former colleagues, nuclear scientists working at a coastal power plant along with Hazel’s husband of many years, Robin (Cook). Years ago Rose left for work in America, but she has now returned in the wake of a catastrophic accident at the plant where they worked.
With a calm that sets your skin tingling, we learn that Hazel and Robin had to flee the dairy farm where they lived because, after the accident (clearly modeled on the Fukushima disaster in Japan, caused by seismic activity followed by a tidal wave), the farm was technically outside the “exclusion zone,” but too close for comfort. Now they live in far more modest circumstances a bit farther away, although not so far that Robin cannot daily return – risking danger – to the farm to care for their beloved cows (or so, at least, he tells Hazel). The hardships they endure are matter-of-factly presented: the water from the tap is not potable, so a large plastic cooler sits next to it; blackouts in the area require the lighting of candles and gas lamps midway through the play.
It is just before Robin arrives that Hazel works up the courage to blurt out the obvious question: Why has Rose come to see them just now, out of the blue, unannounced? But Kirkwood withholds the answer, cannily stoking suspense as Robin and Rose get reacquainted. (We learn that they have a romantic history that Robin, at least, may not necessarily want to put entirely behind him.)
All three actors have long and distinguished careers in the British theater, although they are hardly marquee names in New York. They are, individually and collectively, superb. As Rose, Annis exudes an almost magisterial calm, her genial curiosity about Hazel and Ron’s lives authentic but slightly detached. Annis also telegraphs what Hazel instinctively suspects, namely that Rose is gently avoiding addressing the heart of the matter that has brought her so mysteriously back into Robin and Hazel’s lives.
Findlay’s Hazel moves with a bustling, slightly disorderly warmth, with both a welcome and an anxious question mark in her chipper tone. The children of the title – who remain unseen – are four in number, and all are Hazel and Robin’s. Annis and Findlay superbly negotiate the delicate territory that the women share – they both, in their own way, love Robin, and of course were close professional colleagues – but also indicate the prickly divides between them. Rose remained unmarried, and has never had children, while Hazel’s life was, to a large degree, fulfilled by her motherhood.
Cook’s playful Robin has an easy magnetism and good humor: We can see why his attentions might become a matter of some unspoken antagonism between the two women – even now, when the bright fires of sexual passion have dimmed. (Nonetheless, Robin shows sparks of attraction to Rose, when Hazel leaves the room.) After the three have almost exhausted the talk over old times and new, and Hazel has decided to go to bed, having had enough of the pseudo-camaraderie as well as Robin’s homemade parsnip wine, Rose at last reveals, with a studied casualness, the reason for her visit.
It would not be fair to disclose this, of course, but I can say that she has come to make a proposal that brings the play’s subtext – the overarching human consequences of the nuclear accident – to the surface, setting the tension between the three characters quickly on the boil. “The Children” is on one level a thoroughly naturalistic, and entirely believable, drama about men and women looking back on the lives they have lived and the choices they have made, but it broadens its scope to examine questions of one generation’s responsibility to the next, and who should pay the price — make the hard sacrifices — when human error or thoughtlessness has disastrous consequences.
MacDonald, who has worked frequently in New York (credits include MTC’s “Top Girls” as well as productions for the Atlantic Theater Company and New York Theatre Workshop), calibrates the play’s subdued but unmistakable nuggets of conflict expertly. At just under two hours without intermission, “The Children” does dawdle a bit here and there. (I could have done without the protracted discussion of precisely what Rose did in the bathroom; what is it with the British and scatological humor?) But the preciseness of the play’s naturalism, which must allow for some unnecessary divagations, is integral to its quiet impact, as well as its larger meanings. What we are watching is both entirely unremarkable – post-nuclear-catastrophe, there is still yoga! — and almost unthinkable in its sorrowful implications.
“The Children” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.
Creative: Written by Lucy Kirkwood; Directed by James Macdonald; Scenic Design by Miriam Buether; Costume Design by Miriam Buether; Lighting Design by Peter Mumford; Sound Design by Max Pappenheim; Projection Design by Peter Mumford; Wig Design by Carole Hancock.
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club, The Royal Court Theatre.
Cast: Francesca Annis, Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay.