When Rose (Francesca Annis) unexpectedly drops by on Hazel (Deborah Findlay) after nearly 40 years, she’s met with a punch, and as the play opens, the audience is treated to Hazel justifying her instinct to hit the intruder she sensed behind her as Rose apologizes and nurses her bloody nose. So much for happy reunions. Things, it seems, don’t always go as planned, and that unfortunate exchange sets the tone for the following not quite two hours of The Children, a quietly intense play about life after disaster – and before.
Arriving from the Royal Court to the Manhattan Theatre Club stage with its original cast intact, Lucy Kirkwood’s latest examines a decades-old triangle. Healthier-than-thou Hazel and her genial husband Robin (Ron Cook) are respectable, responsible good citizens who have been happily married for years. To show for it, they have several grown children, a little boutique organic farm with (presumably) grass-fed cattle, and a cozy retirement from the nearby nuclear power plant that they, as well as Rose, helped design and create. Oh, and yes, there was recently a regrettably foreseeable accident that resulted in the area where their farm and home are located being deemed too dangerous for habitation. So Hazel and Robin have staunchly set up in a relative’s cottage just outside the evacuation zone, but, as the production’s cleverly askew take on the comforts of a middle-class home suggests, the situation is far from stable and a crew of new nuclear engineers are working feverishly in the danger zone attempting to clean up and contain the damage – and keep it from happening again. Into this hot mess comes Rose, who’s returned on a mission. But her stop at the home of her former friends awakens all kinds of sleeping truths about their shared past – and threatens to irrevocably alter the happy future they’ve been planning.
On the one hand, Kirkwood’s play is a thoughtful look at the tangled relationships tying this threesome together, bonds that are slowly revealed during a series of not entirely artful stage tête-à-têtes. But on the other, it’s also a suggestive investigation of how each of the three approaches his or her aging. Self-righteous Rose lives by the rules, practicing yoga, eating healthily and leaving every space she visits cleaner than she found it, and she expects a long, rewarding retirement, while her affable husband, though less zealous in his adherence to healthy living, seems content to fall in with her ideals, with only the occasional smirk or raised eyebrow. But Rose is a renegade – and a smoker – determined not to age gracefully, and (without any spoilers) she may be the one who feels the most responsibility for the nuclear disaster the others are trying to live with and ignore. And under James Macdonald’s capable direction, as the three make small talk, strike sparks off one another and bicker, not just their pasts but their potential futures become starkly evident.
Wood is charming in his understatedly raffish role. It’s easy to see how he could once have been the Lothario of the nuclear power plant (and isn’t that a concept!). But it’s the women who really have parts worth digging into. Findlay’s stiffly smug Hazel is utterly convincing in her complacency – and in the insecurity that closely shadows it. Hazel’s conflicted relationship with Rose – still tense after a hiatus of 38 years – lets the actress explore the painful complexities of her character. As for Annis, her Rose is the most interesting and the most nuanced of the trio. A self-proclaimed free spirit, she’s nonetheless the one who expresses doubt, guilt and regret about her past choices as well as the one envisioning the most noble and dangerous way forward for them all. Annis plays the rueful reprobate with charm, grace and a world-weariness that make sense of her many contradictions and explain why, despite everything, she remains connected to these two former colleagues. It’s a slow build to the emotional crux of the play, and impatient audiences may be put off by the chitchat and seemingly inconsequential banter in the play’s first half. But it’s just that banality – and what it hides – that makes the play’s final payoff so telling.