The decisions that lead to a nuclear disaster and its impact on future generations are at the heart of “The Children,” playing at Studio Theatre through June 2, however, the decisions that lead to other unconsidered consequences of desire also figure into Lucy Kirkwood’s 2018 Tony Award-winning play.
Smartly crafted and ably directed by Studio Theatre Artistic Director David Muse, “The Children” is a taut, thought-provoking treatise on how the problems that humans create due to irresponsibility and uncontrolled desires can negatively impact people for generations to come. Whether overpopulation, the national debt, pollution of the environment or a love affair, human impulses are at the core. Included is an economic system that depends on creating appetites that fail to distinguish between basic necessities and unnecessary luxuries.
At 90 minutes with no intermission, the strength of the production is in the superb acting from its two female leads whose war of wills build to a dramatic ending.
Hazel (Jeanne Paulsen) and her husband Robin (Richard Howard) are two retired nuclear physicists who live in a rustic English cottage by the sea. They live outside the radioactive “exclusion zone” not far from their former home and the power plant they helped to build. We learn that a tsunami, similar to the 2011 catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, flooded the plant, causing a massive evacuation.
“We built a nuclear reactor next to the sea and put the emergency generators in the basement!” one character later reveals. The nuclear meltdown that occurred has considerably changed their lives and those of their neighbors.
The couple live on rationed food and water and forego using a computer due to intermittent electricity. Out of the blue, after 38 years, they are visited by Rose (Naomi Jacobson), a former colleague and engineer at the plant who once had been Robin’s lover.
It is this unannounced appearance that drives the plot, as the audience questions what it is that Rose really wants. Slowly, we are introduced to clues through the women’s interaction that sets up a major potential schism in Hazel and Robin’s marriage. Decisions that were made nearly 40 years ago will reverberate into the future.
As Hazel, Paulsen is superb as the put upon host, exacting and seemingly confident, but fraught with suspicion because of the threesome’s past entangled history. In the past, Hazel and Rose were friends, despite the fact that Rose and Robin had dated before the couple got married. It is clear, however, that there has been a simmering acrimony between the two women over the years.
We learn that Hazel resents Rose for her carefree personality and the fact that she never had children. She also suspects that Robin and Rose may have continued their relationship after the couple got married.
It does not help that Rose, sexy, carefree and single, seems to be too familiar with details of the vacation cottage. For instance, she pulls out a footstool from a secluded spot and knows which kitchen cabinet to open to reach into to get a glass for water.
Rose is less openly hostile towards Hazel, but when Hazel leaves the room, Rose confronts Robin, showing her anger that he fathered not only a daughter, Loren, that she was aware of, but three more children while they continued their affair over the years.
In a reflective moment, she admits to feeling “wicked” for wishing that something awful would have happened to Loren, noting that she, too, would have wanted children, but with no one else but Robin.
Kirkwood uses this love triangle as a metaphor for human’s natural instinct as members of a capitalistic society, “to want to have more, to want to grow, to get bigger.” The idea, however, is if humans want continue to pursue these unchecked desires, it will destroy us.
In the play, the fallout from the nuclear radiation not only impacts the environment and the animals, but will have a devastating physical impact on Robin and Rose, as well.
At the end, Rose’s real reason for showing up is finally revealed, and its noble and selfless reasoning makes for an intriguing end to the play. It calls for taking responsibility for both the environmental and personal disasters that the three brought about, in hopes of lessening the impact on future generations, including the couple’s children.
The production design for the play adds greatly to the performance, courtesy of Scenic Designer Tom Kamm. Miriam Nilofa Crowe’s artful lightning and Broken Chord’s sound design also make this production shine.