Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
First produced in Kirkwood's native England by the Royal Court Theater in 2016, Jungle Theater has mounted the first U.S. regional production of The Children following its Broadway run (earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Play) last season. Kirkwood was inspired by the 2011 nuclear power plant meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. She changed the location to England, but with the same basic premise: an exceedingly rare collision of geologic fault linesa once in ten million years event, a character stateshas triggered a tidal wave that destroyed a seaside nuclear power plant, releasing radiation from the reactor core into the surrounding water and land, causing death to people, animals and plants.
Hazel (Linda Kelsey) and Robin (Stephen Yoakam), a long-married pair of nuclear scientists, have spent their entire careers at the plant and lived nearby. After retiring, they purchased a plot of land for a hobby-farm just beside the "exclusion zone" surrounding the plant that has been indefinitely evacuated. They since moved away, but not too far, living a spare life. Their rationed electricity comes on briefly at 10:00 p.m., their running water is unfit to drink, their plumbing unreliable, and their food requires testing for radiation. Hazel seems to be taking the adjustment more in stride than Robin, who is unable to keep from revisiting their radioactive farm site, and seeks comfort in drinking the wine he distills from locally gathered plants. Hazel believes in doing what she can to keep herself healthy, in spite of everything, by such means as taking up yoga and eating healthy meals. At 67, she feels nowhere near the end of her life. Further, she has four children and four grandchildren to consider.
Hazel and Robin's patterned lives are disrupted by a surprise visit from Rose (Laila Robins), a fellow scientist during their days at the plant, who left for America twenty-eight years ago. Hazel reveals that she'd heard rumors Rose had died, and it is not so clear that she is in fact thrilled by the sight of her long-gone friend. Certainly, the two women have very different natures: Hazel is practical, forthright, and witty in a bookish way, with a hint of self-righteousness, while Rose is droll, guarded and self-deprecating. Hazel prattles on with nervous chatter until Robin returns from his daily walk to the farm. When he does arrive, it is with a burst of ebullient energy, as if he were a schoolboy just set free for a holiday break.
What areor werethese three to each other? One moment it seems they must have been intensely close, the next that they were merely amiable colleagues. There is a mystery around Rose's reappearance after all these years, in the wake of the devastation of the one thing they surely had in common. All is revealed in the course of the 105 minutes (with no intermission) that the play runs, set in real time. Along the way, the three bring up their varied ways of responding to the specter of aging, to the assault of disease upon the body, to the fading away of their productive years for lives focused on self-care and modest satisfactions. When Rose at last reveals the reason for her return, their earlier concerns are torn asunder, as if a second nuclear meltdown threatens to immolate their lives.
Everything plays out in the main roomkitchen, dining and living room combinedof the cozily rustic house Hazel and Robin now occupy, a set beautifully designed with thoughtful detail by Chelsea M. Warren. Director Casey Stangl takes the playwright's well-worn trope of a couple whose ordered life is turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of someone from their past, and works with the skillfully crafted text to make it fresh and urgent. She raises an alert that something new, something we have not seen before, is afoot, as our planet faces challenges it has not seen before.
Stangl has assembled a dream cast in Linda Kelsey, Laila Robins, and Stephen Yoakam. Kelsey is perfection as Hazel, staunchly resolved to make the best of things as they have turned out, maternal but not sentimental, organized to a pinpoint. She is splendid slamming down the salad she has just put together in front of Rose while sputtering bottled up grievances toward her guest. Laila Robins is equally striking as Rose, showing the great effort it takes to maintain an air of sophistication, sharing tidbits about failed relationships and therapy. The difference between these two women is underscored by Mathew J. Lefebvre's spot-on costumes, Hazel in salt-of-the-earth jeans, a peasant-style blouse, and long hair pulled nonchalantly back, while Rose sports stylish apparel in black and grey, with a chic short haircut.
Stephen Yoakam portrays Robin with bawdy humor, juvenile playfulness, and deep sadness. He can be a great clown, as in his splendid slow burn while Hazel irritates him with the wheezy winding of a radio, but when he describes to Rose the reason he keeps going to the farm, he releases the depth of heartbreak he has lived with, and the effort he has made to shelter Hazel from his despair. While all of this may sound like terribly heavy goingand The Children is unquestionably a serious playit is laced throughout with humor, the type that enables us to endure through the ravages of life. When all three join in an awkward, funky dance they enjoyed together thirty years before, they seem on the brink of retreat back to a time when they were unburdened by personal disappointment and global disaster.
There are some flaws in Kirkwood's play. For example, after Hazel's reflex response to Rose that her children are all well, including Lauren, the oldest who was born before Rose moved away, there is a revelation that all is not so well, but this never loops back to the themes at the heart of the play. The flaws are minor, however, compared to the full circle Kirkwood draws from the play's mildly mysterious opening to its breathtaking, fully informed denouement, in which each character fully embraces their honest selves.
While The Children presents a deeply satisfying dramatic arc, its unanswered questions about responsibility for judgments made in the name of better living that imperil the planet, about the relative value of long life versus virtuous lives, and the legacy we intend to pass on to our children, and to theirs, linger long after the final curtain. This is strikingly powerful theater, with text, production and performances all delivered at the apex of the form.
The Children, through February 17, 2019, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $35.00 - $50.00. Seniors (60+) and students, through undergraduates, $5.00 discount. For tickets call 612-822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood; Director: Casey Stangl; Set Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Matthew J. Lefebvre; Lighting Design: Marcus Dillard; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Wind Design: Andrea Moriarity; Dialect Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Brent Anderson; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.
Cast: Linda Kelsey (Hazel), Laila Robins (Rose), Stephen Yoakam (Robin).