Regional Reviews: Boston
Also see Josh's review of Fiddler on the Roof
This central question powers Lucy Kirkwood's The Children, the timely and frequently compelling play that opened this week at SpeakEasy Stage Company in a production directed by Bryn Boice: Who is responsible for the human damage done to our planet? And who among us bears the burden of working to mitigate that damagebefore it's too late?
The fight for climate justice can't wait. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cites this calendar year as our deadline for reducing carbon emissions. Otherwise, without swift and decisive action from world leaders, global temperatures are expected to rise more than five degrees Fahrenheit by century's end. Kirkwood's play couldn't be more apt, a necessary reckoning with this crisis we've created as we teeter toward the brink of disaster. But don't worrythis drama is not some preachy environmental polemic. What Kirkwood has crafted, instead, is a character study of three survivors, bruised but resilient, in the autumn years of their lives, who are confronted by an impossible decision on how they will live out their days.
The Children, which previously played in London and New York (earning two Tony Award nominations), is held together by a web of secrets slowly untangled in real time over the course of two hours. In the spare silence of a ramshackle cottage somewhere on the coast of England (the eerily effective set is by Cristina Todesco), an old friend, Rose, comes to pay a visit on married couple Hazel and Robin, two retired physicists. Rose's reappearance comes as a surprise, to the degree that Hazel accidentally smashes her nose out of fright. There's a lot that's frightening these days.
As Rose recovers from her bloody nose, she and Hazel open up about their lives since they last saw each other: Hazel's children and grandchildren (four each); Rose's heady stories of living in America. But the recent incident is an unavoidable topic: an earthquake followed by a catastrophic wave, "like the sea was boiling milk," that caused a nuclear accident at the plant just miles down the road. This event was "one in ten million years," according to the experts. Hazel and Robin now live in a borrowed cottage outside the "exclusion zone," where the electricity doesn't come on until 10 o'clock each night.
From there, best to preserve the element of surprise. There are many revelations that follow in this play that's deliberately, and sometimes frustratingly, enigmatic. The story is a sum of disparate pieces: part Harold Pinter, rife with uneasy pauses and evasive cross-talk, and part Edward Albee and his acid-laced banter. As each of these players tries to suss out just what motivates the others, some of the big, dark secrets they're hiding are fairly trite. But, as we circle closer to the question of why Rose has come to call, the play shifts gears toward a more powerful examination of moral urgency.
It's a pleasure to have three game actors on board. Tyrees Allen has the most difficult character to make sense of (Robin). Despite Allen's skill at filling out Robin's gregarious, lustful spirit, the character never achieves the complexity of the other two. I was more riveted by Paula Plum's no-nonsense Hazel and Karen MacDonald's vivacious Rose facing off like fencing partners. Both women play off each other splendidly as they navigate the uncomfortable reasons behind their reunion, bringing life to their inner uncertainties as they push and prod each other. Both are survivors. Plum's Hazel is a proud, unfussy woman, maintaining the delicate balance of her life until it all starts crumbling around her. MacDonald is giving a very fine performance as Rose, once the life of the party, now clearly racked with guilt and desperate to do what she can for absolution. She is the lifeblood that drives the play to its ambivalent conclusion.
Kirkwood's ambitious take on crafting a modern morality play is admirable. If The Children sometimes favors obscurity over logical storytelling, the core argument that Rose makes does resonate beyond the play's end. By asking who bears responsibility for this fictional (but very real) environmental disaster, the answer seems clear: We all do.
The Children runs through March 28, 2020, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston MA. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at speakeasystage.com, by phone at 617-933-8600, or in person at the Boston Center for the Arts box office.