SpeakEasy's "The Children": Come Hell or High Water

Karen MacDonald, Tyrees Allen & Paula Plum in "The Children"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

As the lights go up on SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of The Children, a chilling new play by Lucy Kirkwood, the sound of the surf (not a calming sound but a raging one) can be heard as two characters enter a somewhat ramshackled and isolated cottage. The building is inhabited by Robin (Tyrees Allen) and Hazel (Paula Plum), long-married retired physicists living on the British coast. They are visited by a former colleague, Rose (Karen MacDonald) who shows up rather unexpectedly (after a 38 year absence) on a summer evening with a shocking request. And that's about all one may share without disturbing the flow of this play with its underlying existential dread. First performed in London in 2016, it transferred to Broadway in 2017 where it was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play.

Karen MacDonald & Tyrees Allen in "The Children"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

In this version, Directed by Bryn Boice, that dread is palpably real as it drops successive clues about the dystopia and dyspepsia that are afoot, and nary a word of dialog is extraneous. For that matter, even the deviously clever set (with such simple objects as a water glass, a Coleman camping refrigerator and an apple that resists staying put and insists on rolling off a table) exists almost as a fourth character in portraying what is askew. There are many red herrings along the way, not the least of which is the title. Rose's line, the first in the play, is to ask “how are the children?”; to comment further would be to spoil one of many such hints.
How to describe this ninety-minute intermission-less work is thus challenging if one wishes not to share its fundamental “reveal”. It's also next to impossible to discuss the import of the play without referencing the obvious parallels to the ignorance and arrogance of this country's current administration with its antipathy toward science and lack of time sensitive response to the current virus outbreak. But there are also more mundane issues here, primarily the reason for Rose's return. It's clear that all has been disrupted due to a nuclear disaster at the nearby power plant, where they all previously worked, which led to an epic tsunami. The play's subtext refers to Hazel's views about who would consciously want to move towards their own death and her statement, “I don't know how to want less”, perhaps the work's most crucial line, as is her remark “I don't want to give up anything”. Underlying the idea that you can do nothing because a disaster is already too large is, as Kirkwood has been quoted, an "infantilizing" one (and one of the many reasons for the title).

Paula Plum in "The Children"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

There's a lot of passive aggression on stage, exquisitely performed by this fine cast, right down to the accents (Hazel's Yorkshire vs. Rose's having lived for years in America). Plum is spot on as the rigid type A who no doubt crosses her “t's” with a ruler, and MacDonald is a mesmerizing mix of multi-leveled contradictions, while Tyrees effortlessly exudes both his character's complexity and simplicity. In the end, this play, as the playwright has insisted, has nothing to do with nuclear power whatsoever, but is a larger metaphor for human intervention into the environment (inspired by the 2011 Japanese nuclear disaster and tsunami). For her, climate change is a global issue, driven here by emotion rather than intellect, heading toward resistance that is built on consensus and sharing power; in short, don't despair; protest. Kirkwood sees a piece of theater as a political act in itself, running on the promotion of energy in which one tells an audience a story that nourishes them in some way. As she simply puts it, it's communion.

It falls to this wondrous cast, with expert timing and toxic delivery, under Boice's intricate direction, to fulfill the author's ends. Kirkwood's writing has been described as Caryl Churchillian or Harold Pinteresque but is more in keeping with the work of Edward Albee, as in his A Delicate Balance with its own atmosphere of existential dread. That ingenious Scenic Design is by Cristina Todesco, with apt Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, effective Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg and creepy Sound Design by David Remedios.

Paula Plum, Karen Mac Donald & Tyrees Allen in "The Children"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)
As Hazel puts it more than once, “we've got to grow to live”; the playwright says: “we have a finite planet...so the play was always about the battle between wanting more and looking at what you can actually have”. Even in the midst of some of Rose's wry lines (some of which you may find will threaten to split your atoms), this play is a stunner. Described by some, somewhat inaccurately, as a mystery or an eco-thriller, it's perhaps better seen as a puzzle surrounding a riddle and daring you to solve it.

What thinkest thou of the apocalypse now?

 Note: remaining performances have been cancelled due to the virus pandemic.

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