Lucy Kirkland’s The Children is a small play about big issues: namely the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear disaster on Britain’s coast. It premiered in London at the Royal Court Theatre in 2016, won the U.K. Writers’ Guild Award for Best New Play, and moved to Broadway in 2017, where it received two 2018 Tony Award nominations. It’s now in downtown Annapolis, in a production by Colonial Players that is at once witty, chilling and cautionary.
It’s also beautifully staged, with deft direction by Mary Fawcett Watko guiding a trio of actors who for 95 minutes straight have the audience believing that the end is nearer than we had ever imagined. While inspired by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear explosion in Japan, the show is not based on real events, though its truths are as visceral as a kick in the gut. And so are the effects.
As the play starts, the lights flicker to black and a deep, dark rumble floods the theater, seemingly shaking every seat in the house. Through a window we see the eerie lights of what we later learn was a nuclear meltdown at the nearby plant, and a subsequent tsunami. It’s so real you want to flee the theater, but also so mesmerizing you can’t move. The lights come up on Rose (Meg Venton), whose bloody nose seems foreboding until we learn she came into Hazel’s (Mary MacLeod) seaside cottage on the British coast unannounced and got a reflexive welcome as a result. Why is Rose there? Why, after 38 years, does she seem perhaps too familiar with Hazel and Robin’s (Greg Jones) little cottage?
All three are retired nuclear engineers who once were colleagues at the plant. Robin and Hazel, forced to live in the small cottage because their farmhouse home was flooded and lies just outside the “exclusion zone” of the plant, are getting along as normally as they can despite the regular use of a Geiger counter to test themselves and their belongings for radiation, including, jarringly, a kid’s tricycle. The rationing of food and electricity means eating a lot of salad and Hazel, already a health nut, is determined to make the best of her post-apocalyptic world.
Robin spends his days farming and caring for his field full of cows who he has told Hazel survived the disaster. When he comes home to Rose’s surprise visit, the machinations begin. With Rose and Hazel the only female employees at the plant and the charming Robin a bit of a ladies’ man, the story could fall quickly into caricature, but Kirkwood has bigger and more meaningful things on her characters’ minds. What follows is a fascinating, often laugh-out-loud dance among the three, sometimes together, sometimes one-on-one, each with their own motives and goals, all happening under the looming shadow of disaster.
The technical aspects of this production are as good as the acting and directing. Laurie Nolan’s charming set turns Colonial’s in-the-round stage into a seaside cottage; Jenn Smith’s lights and Wes Bedsworth’s sound perfectly evoke not just the eerie fright of the disaster, but also just the right atmosphere for the emotions of each scene.
Venton’s Rose clearly has arrived with an agenda; it includes what can only be described here, without revealing critical plot points, as redemption. Venton imbues Rose with a physicality that is almost threatening, yet her vulnerabilities are as clear as the sound of that Geiger counter.
MacLeod gives us a Hazel who is determined to go on despite the falling world around her. “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live,” is her mantra, and while she also touts the laudable yet ironic philosophy that one must leave a place cleaner than one found it, it’s clear there’s a tsunami of trouble running under her surface.
As Robin, Jones delivers plenty of charm, but allows us to see the mental deflections the character makes as he navigates back and forth between the two women’s subtle maneuverings. Jones’s Robin is not so much a man caught in the middle as he is a subtle conductor of what’s going on around him. When he reveals a heartbreaking secret to Hazel, the audience has to determine if he is being honest or manipulative. It’s a mystery, and indicative of the mastery of Jones’s performance.
Speaking of mastery, by the time Rose reveals the real reason for her visit, we are already so captivated by these three performers that the subsequent discussion hits us, the audience, right where we live. What are our responsibilities to future generations? Are those generations The Children in the play’s title, demanding and deserving that we leave them a better world? Are we The Children of the title, acting selfishly in all things personal and societal? It’s a privilege for any audience to be completely bathed in poignant performances so committed and true that you feel they are talking about you.
And, the way we as a society are abusing our world, maybe they are. The curtain call is one that you won’t soon forget.
About 95 minutes with no intermission. ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, thru Feb. 1, The Colonial Players, Annapolis, $23 w/discounts, rsvp: www.tickets.thecolonialplayers.org