Friday, April 26, 2019

Phoenix Theatre: 'The Children' ponders dangerous legacies, both personal and technological

In their cottage home near a disaster site, Hazel and Robin fret together.
The toxic triangle of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima has left an afterglow in the public mind that has forever complicated acceptance of nuclear power as a safe alternative to other energy sources.

"The Children" takes place with a fictional accident at a nuclear power station as a menacing backdrop, but it doesn't feel like a topical or political play. It's rather an exploration of how we summon moral and physical courage in the face of challenges that seem overwhelming and call into question how we have lived our lives.

Lucy Kirkwood's three-character one-act opens tonight at the Phoenix Theatre. Seen at Thursday's preview performance, an intensely committed cast of three seasoned professionals under Bill Simmons' direction stunned the audience with the comedy-drama's illuminating scrutiny of the interplay of resilience and vulnerability.

Hazel and Robin are a couple in upper middle age who live in a cottage in southeastern England (in Zac Hunter's sensitive design of deceptive normality) in the aftermath of a devastating meltdown at a place where they once held high-level jobs. At home not far from the exclusion zone, they are surprised by the sudden appearance of ex-colleague Rose, whom they've not seen in three decades. The surprise, and the eventually revealed reason for her visit, turns alarmingly into exposure of how they've coped in the contaminated vicinity. Jolted by Rose's explanation, "The Children" settles into a glum journey over frightening terrain.

Kirkwood is a canny writer, chock-full of insights into how people carry and adjust the emotional baggage they've been forced to bear. The comedy is concentrated in the first half-hour or so of the play. It's a comedy of bad manners, as Hazel and Rose in dialogue clearly are ancient foes, treading on each other's speech in a jumble of glancing blows.

Rose's boisterous manner conceals secrets.
Hazel, portrayed with febrile fragility by Donna Steele, is an ungracious hostess on a talking jag, nervously proclaiming a hold on life she can barely manage. Diane Kondrat played Rose masterfully as an assertive, blithe cosmopolitan woman (cleverly costumed as such by Lauren Kreighan ). On a mission we are dying to find out, Rose parries Hazel's haphazard thrusts wittily.

Hazel makes us jumpy, and we are only witnesses. It's no wonder she unsettles Rose somewhat. When Robin, who has been visiting the condemned farm the couple had run on the side, ostensibly to care for its remaining cows, returns home, the cracks in the marriage resound like glaciers calving. Robin is played with aching bravado and woundedness by Charles Goad in one of his more in-depth recent roles. We eventually come to understand the hollowness behind the husband's hearty facade.

The illnesses and unresolved conflicts in all three characters, some of them the residue of their troubled old friendship, come to the fore in a kind of striking parallel to the superficially undetectable effects of radiation. There is also, as the play's title suggests, some significant riffs on the theme of maturity. People well along in life often confront mortality in the manner of children unwilling to leave behind favorite playthings and the more abstract fondnesses they choose to lay claim to. The First World marketplace, which dictates that we should have (preferably via purchase) what we think we deserve, seems to set the cultural rules. This may carry over into how we exercise our skills, especially when we choose to overlook the downsides of technology. All three have some considerations to ponder about their culpability, which Rose underscores frankly as she makes the pitch I can't reveal here.

These unlikable characters are winningly played, and the danger they are confronting seems overwhelming. The last scene, with its hint of the supernatural, is an odd mixture of yoga and domestic tidiness. Laura Glover's enchanted lighting takes on the colors of the nearby sea. Air, earth, and water have all been affected by the nuclear accident. That leaves out only one of the ancient four elements, and once again nature warns (in the refrain of the Rolling Stones song that's part of Tom Horan's sound design), "Don't play with me, 'cause you're playing with fire."

[Photos by Gray Dragon Photography]

1 comment:

  1. Thank you once again for your fine writing and considered opinions. I so value them.