by Carol Rocamora
An apocalyptic vision, infused with hope? Hard to imagine – that is, until you see The Children, Lucy Kirkwood’s astonishing new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
From the moment the play opens – with the ominous image of a woman standing in a kitchen, blood pouring from her nose– you are held in the play’s relentless grip. Though the wound turns out to be harmless, the circumstances are not.
The woman’s name is Rose (played by Francesca Annis), and the kitchen belongs to her former colleagues Robin and Hazel (Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay), two retired nuclear physicists whose East Anglian dwelling is just outside a disaster zone. The neighboring nuclear power plant where they all once worked has suffered an explosion and subsequent radiation of the nearby area. The couple’s home has been contaminated, so they’ve relocated to a seaside cottage just outside the “exclusion zone,” where they plan to farm and live out their retirement years while the terrible threat of fall-out hangs over the land.
So what is Rose doing in the kitchen with a bloody nose? It was an accident, explains Hazel, who, startled by Rose’s unexpected visit, has struck her unintentionally. After all, they’d all worked together at the power plant, and hadn’t seen each other for 38 years. “We thought you were dead!” Hazel blurts. It’s a laugh-line, and we enjoy it, unprepared for what follows.
Still, the question remains: Why has Rose come? The revelation of her purpose drives this suspenseful thriller. Rose has made a decision – to return to the power plant, recruit a team of older physicists to supervise the cleanup, and rescue the current young physicists working there (all under 35) from the threat of contamination. It’s a moral and ethical stand, made for the sake of future generations, that turns a seemingly harmless reunion into a life-changing crisis for these three colleagues, all in their late 60s.
Needless to say, I dare not reveal the outcome and thereby spoil your discoveries that this fine, brave play offers. The trio of virtuoso English actors shines. As the pragmatist of the group, Deborah Findlay plays Hazel as a woman determined to lead an orderly life with its quotidian cares of meal preparation, needy adult children, loss of electricity and faulty plumbing, etc. – while insulating herself from the unimaginable threat of the current reality. Ron Cook, as Robin, keeps up a brave front while hiding devastating secrets from his beloved wife. The charismatic Francesca Annis, as Rose, is the catalyst of this uneasy, delicate balance. She’s a woman with nothing to lose, as we painfully discover.
Under James MacDonald’s expert direction, this ordinary cottage kitchen (designed by Mariam Buether) is the scene of revelation after shocking revelation, escalating to a stunning denouement. Rarely do we encounter a playwright of conscience like Lucy Kirkwood, who, following in Caryl Churchill’s footsteps (Far Away, Escaped Alone), courageously tackles the big questions that our planet faces and makes the connections between caring for our own nuclear families (no pun intended) and the larger family of man in generations to come. Like Churchill, Kirkwood raises the question of responsibility – social, ecological, and humanitarian – that we all must face in this perilous 21st century.
Lingering in the air of The Children is an image mentioned early in the play by one of the characters – of a medieval village perched high on a cliff that collapses into the sea. The underwater clanging of church bells is a sound cue that will linger in your ears long after you’ve left the theatre.
The Children, by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by James Macdonald, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, now through February 4. www. manhattantheatreclub.com
Photos: Joan Marcus