Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through June 9
By ANNE SPISELMAN
What would you do in the wake of a nuclear disaster?
That’s one of the two big questions British playwright Lucy Kirkwood poses in “The Children,” which was a hit in London and New York, and now is enjoying a well-acted Chicago premiere directed by Jonathan Berry in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre.
The second question, also predicated on the fact that we all know that we’re going to die eventually, is even thornier. What would you do if you felt you were partly responsible for the disaster and could help fix the problem for the sake of future generations, even if doing so would result in your own death?
In an interview in the program, Kirkwood says that she wanted to write about climate change because she wondered how we can all know we’re “living through a climate emergency” but still pretend it’s not happening and fail to change our behavior. She concludes, basically, that we don’t like facing death, of ourselves or the planet, and are unwilling to give up things such as electricity and working plumbing that we’ve been conditioned to think are our rights.
To bring her premise to dramatic life rather than just presenting data, the playwright postulates a disaster that would sound preposterous if it hadn’t basically happened at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. She sets the play in a rural area on the East coast of England where, sometime in the near past, an earthquake was followed by a tsunami, which flooded a coastal nuclear power plant causing the emergency generators misguidedly located in the basement to shut down resulting in a nuclear meltdown.
Two of the three characters, husband-and-wife Robin (Yasen Peyankov) and Hazel (Janet Ulrich Brooks), retired nuclear scientists who are in their 60s and previously worked at the plant, have left their home and farm inside the toxic “exclusion zone” and retreated to a small cottage just outside it. Nonetheless, Robin returns to the farm daily to feed the cows (or so it’s said), sometimes coming back with stuff he finds there, such as a tricycle, even if it sets off the Geiger counter.
When the play opens, Robin is off at the farm and Hazel is in the cottage’s spare living area having an awkward conversation with Rose (Ora Jones), a former work colleague whom she hasn’t seen in 38 years and who has arrived by surprise. Also in her 60s, Rose is trying to ignore a bloody nose Hazel just gave her by accident.
As the 105 intermission-less minutes unfold, we learn that Hazel and Rose have opposite personalities, and there are substantial reasons for the tensions between them. Amid discussions of everything from past parties to social responsibility, peppered with acerbic wit and fueled by Robin’s homemade wine once he returns home, we learn that Hazel is an exacting woman who eats salad, does yoga, and says things in all seriousness like “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live.” She’s had a successful career and raised four children, although the eldest, Lauren, is almost 40 and still needs a lot of hand-holding. Now, she feels entitled to live in peace with Robin.
Rose, on the other hand, has remained unmarried and childless by choice, and lived in America for some time. An unconventional free spirit of sorts, she smokes and drinks, hates salad, and is not very organized or orderly.
While these complicated characters are interesting, and Brooks and Jones make them real (if not entirely English-seeming), Kirkwood muddies the waters with a couple of contrivances. First is the mystery surrounding the reason for Rose’s arrival; we’re kept in the dark for at least the first hour, and the script doesn’t really pick up steam until after that.
Second is the idea of using a romantic triangle to humanize the subject matter, which strikes me as rather obvious, if not trivializing. Hazel makes it clear she knew Robin and Rose were having an affair when they all worked at the plant, and the way Rose knows where things are in the cottage makes Hazel suspect that it didn’t end there. Exchanges between Robin and Rose radiate sexual tension. Robin and Hazel alternate between friction and affection. Reminiscences give way to recriminations, and so on through all the expected emotional territory. More than a little of it centers on Rose’s resentment of Hazel for having four children, when she thought there was only Lauren.
Most confounding about this plot device is that it is unclear why both these smart women would want Robin, at least as he’s portrayed by Peyankov. A mope who seems to have a death wish—he refers to the human body as “rented meat” – he can be nice but also has a nasty streak that comes out quickly once he starts drinking. He also sounds like a Russian with an English accent, a slightly disconcerting oddity not supported by anything in the text.
Chelsea M. Warren’s scenic design also has a drawback. Her cottage, enhanced by Lee Fiskness’ blackout-incorporating lighting, is impeccable, but it’s also on a precipitous cliff that distances us from the action rather than drawing us in. This may be thematically sound but isn’t as effective as greater intimacy might be.
“The Children” is intelligent and thought provoking, but by the end of the evening, I found myself not really caring about any of the characters. And that’s deadly.