At the Steppenwolf Theatre Co. (Downstairs)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –“The Children” at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre is a small play physically—just three characters in a single set covering about 1 hour and 45 minutes of real time. But it attempts to investigate large themes—nuclear, ecological, moral, and domestic—mostly with success. But there are times when the drama drifts into two separate plays, and matters get murky.
Lucy Kirkwood’s play opened to considerable critical acclaim in London in 2016 and then moved to New York City in 2017 where it earned more critical applause.
The action takes place on the coast of England where married couple Robin and Hazel have resided since they lost their home in a fearful sequence of natural and manmade disasters. The couple had been instrumental in building a nuclear power plant on the coast. The audience gradually learns there was an earthquake, followed by a tsunami that disabled the plant’s power generators that were erroneously placed below ground, leading to a nuclear meltdown–a perfect storm of natural and manmade calamities. Robin and Hazel lost their home and now live primitively in a cottage near the disaster site, forced to use candles more than electricity and eat salads and crackers in the absence of conventional meals.
The play opens with the unexpected arrival of Rose, another nuclear scientist who was a member of the team that designed the power plant. Rose appears after a 38-year absence, though there are intimations that she may have made clandestine visits to Robin over the decades. Rose, Hazel, and Robin have a history independent of the natural disaster, and Rose’s sudden arrival in the cottage obviously has some purpose beyond a social call. As the characters chat away the minutes it’s apparent that each of the three has some agenda (which can’t be revealed out of fairness to the audience).
Kirkwood writes strong, realistic dialogue, and she needs all her writing skills because the narrative meanders along for at least half the play’s length before the playwright gets to the meat of her play. Rose and Robin had a romantic relationship back in the day, but Hazel won Robin away from her, possibly by getting pregnant to force a marriage. As the play progresses the tension level rises, especially between Rose and Hazel whose surface friendship converts into hostility.
The power plant catastrophe brings up issues of how the errors of the senior generation can damage the younger generation. Is the older generation obligated to expiate its sins against the younger generation by some redemptive sacrifice? We don’t hear the voice of the younger people (the “children” of the play’s title) affected and it would be interesting to get their input on the mess their elders inflicted on them.
There is an ongoing reference to the daughter of Robin and Hazel, a troubled woman who seems to be a victim of Robin and Hazel’s parenting.. But the offstage daughter serves primarily as a plot device, telephoning the house to get one parent out of the room so the other one can have an intense conversation with Rose.
The weightier topic in “The Children” obviously is the nuclear disaster, but we have not lacked for cautionary tales about modern science, especially nuclear science, wreaking havoc on the world. The play reflects a similar disaster that occurred in Japan in 2011, not to mention Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Add global warming and other human depredations to the earth’s environment to the sorry record of bad judgment and dishonesty and “The Children” has an almost documentary flavor.
Issues of moral responsibility and restitution are worth examining, but I actually was more involved in the twists and turns of the personal relationships among the three characters, with their manipulations and pent up resentments. The play’s disasters are larger than life but the romantic revelations may be more accessible to the audience, especially by the end of the play when the staging takes a melodramatic and ambiguous turn.
“The Children” is mostly talk and less than proficient acting would turn the play into a long sit for the viewer. But The Steppenwolf is employing a blue chip threesome of local performers to bring the show home in Yasen Payenkov (Robin), Ora Jones (Rose), and Janet Ulrich Brooks (Hazel). Brooks give the more dominant performance because her character is the most complex and has the strongest stage presence. Her Hazel is steeped in suppressed grievances garnished with a dash of ambivalence about her responsibilities in the power plant disaster.
Jonathan Berry directed this language-driven play with a sure hand, allowing Kirkwood’s script to flow naturally and credibly. The final moments may be forced and perplexing but the overall arc of the production should keep the audience’s attention engaged. Chelsea Warren designed the large and detailed cottage interior, though the play may be more effective in a more intimate venue, like the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre. Mara Blumenfeld designed the appropriately informal costumes and Lee Fiskness (lighting) and Andre Pluess (sound) combined to provide aural and visual effects so necessary to the play’s mood, even if the final moments may be over the top.
I entered the theater anticipating that I would be watching a cautionary tale about how the world shamefully has reached such a perilous place in history. We get graphic doses of that theme almost daily in the media. But it’s on the human level that the play works best for me, conflicts that personally impact on the lives of decent but flawed people.
Maybe the best moment in the production is an impromptu three-person jive dance that dates back to the youth of the thee characters, a rare moment of carefree companionship. The dance took only a couple of minutes and had nothing to do with the play’s larger ideas, but Payenkov, Brooks, and Jones make it come alive. The dance suggests we may be helpless in the face of nuclear and natural disaster, but we can still take much pleasure in small, nostalgic pleasures.
The show gets a rating ofstars.
“The Children” runs through June 9 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $99.Call 312 335 1650 or visit steppenwolf.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 2019
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