“How are the children?” shouts a woman standing in a spare, roughly furnished cottage kitchen at the start of Lucy Kirkwood’s potent, aching new play. The woman is still, serious; there’s an almost alien quality about her, as if she’s processing the details of the world of human beings for the first time. She has gray hair with some wave to it, nicely kept, and a finely featured, elfin face that hints at younger days of striking beauty. She’s also bleeding heavily from the nose, and though another woman — more earthy, more energetic — will soon arrive with a washbowl and a rag and a profusion of apologies, the first woman, the alien, will spend the rest of the play with the front of her shirt marked with blood.
The Children — which premiered at the Royal Court in London last year and has now transferred to Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre with its original cast and deft, deceptively unostentatious director, James Macdonald — is a play about responsibility and guilt, reparation and redemption. It’s also a British play, so these heavy matters are handled lightly, wryly; they’re approached from the side until circumstances absolutely demand a head-on confrontation. “And then I saw the wave,” one character tells another, talking quickly and avoiding sentiment as she describes the cataclysmic event that has redefined reality in The Children’s version of contemporary coastal Britain: “Only it didn’t look like a wave — it looked like the sea was boiling milk and it just kept boiling and boiling and boiling and … and then everyone was running, so I ran too … I’m so sorry, did you say you wanted tea?”
The character speaking is Hazel. She’s the second woman, the one with the washbowl and the apologies, and this cottage belongs to her and her husband, Robin. The alien is Rose, a ghost from their pasts, now standing in the middle of Hazel’s kitchen covered in blood. For Hazel, even after a semi-apocalypse, there’s still great importance in things like tea and routine and yoga and salads and keeping one’s cottage tidy. Electricity is rationed, yes, and the home she and Robin used to live in ten miles down the road is now a stinking, flooded wreck after the great, boiling wave, but here Hazel can keep order. And order is hope, and hope is life. But now a shiver ripples through the cottage, emanating from that blood on her visitor’s chest. Rose is a smaller woman than Hazel. She looks harmless enough, but her presence is as unmistakable as if she were carrying a scythe and a chessboard. Death has come to call.
Of course Rose brings no sinister props with her — only an important question, one that won’t break the surface tension for a while yet. She, Hazel, and Robin are old friends, or old work colleagues, at least. She hasn’t seen Hazel for 38 years (though we discover soon enough that she’s seen Robin a bit more recently than that). She’s been in America, and while she’s been away, the world has come to an end. The boiling wave, the flooding, the electrical failure, the earthquake that made the road outside Hazel and Robin’s old house “crack down the middle” — it all came from the nearby nuclear power station, a man-made volcano, dormant and useful until recently, now an explosive, open wound gushing poison into the sleepy English countryside.
The power station is also the place where Hazel, Rose, and Robin all used to work. The three of them are in their mid-60s, but they’re not your average retirees: They’re nuclear engineers. Rose and Hazel can banter about free neutrons and the difference between a uranium-235 nucleus and a uranium-236 nucleus (“Layman’s terms,” scoffs Hazel) just as easily as they can about Hazel’s grandchildren or the farming she and Robin have taken up. More easily, actually. Though they’re polite to one another, the two women don’t share much — mainly nuclear physics. And Robin.
At the first hints of some kind of affair between Robin and Rose, my heart sank a little. It seemed like a cheap answer for the question dangling in the air from the beginning of The Children. In Hazel’s words: “Rose? Why have you come here?” But the sinking feeling didn’t last for long. Kirkwood is far too smart not to realize exactly how she’s deploying an idea as well-worn as a love triangle. For one thing, it’s certainly not the answer to that hovering question — more like a messy, human wrinkle in Rose’s quest to ask the thing that she’s come here to ask. For another, Kirkwood plays a clever and ultimately heartbreaking game with the complex relationships among these three old friends. First, she manages to convince us that whatever’s going on in the realm of the heart — love, lust, jealousy, bitterness, regret — is merely a red herring, distracting us from more literally earthshaking issues. Then she pulls a marvelous conjurer’s trick, ultimately revealing that human fellowship — the way we care for each other in all our selfish, generous, contradictory ferocity — doesn’t diminish in the face of the apocalypse. Rather, it becomes all.
In the gradual building of The Children’s emotional heft, from its “Did you say you wanted tea?” beginning, Kirkwood receives stellar support from the production’s remarkable trio of actors. Francesca Annis as Rose, Deborah Findlay as Hazel, and Ron Cook as Robin may be the most powerful chamber ensemble to hit Broadway since the original cast of A Doll’s House, Part 2, and in a way their work is even more striking for its unison of intelligence and power. There’s no Laurie Metcalf, no single show-stealing tour de- force, in The Children. Instead, there’s the sense of three expert players staying in close harmony: at first reserved, eventually released.
Findlay, hiding deep stores of fear and love beneath her pragmatic, accommodating exterior, truly makes Hazel into the kind of woman that “holds up the world,” as Rose admits late in the play, in a moment that’s both admiration and apology. Hazel takes care of things: this cottage, her husband, and her children, though they’re all adults and far away. Watching her and Robin deal with phone calls from their oldest daughter Lauren — a troubled 38-year-old who’s “just quite angry” and who can’t even get a washing machine put in without calling her parents in a panic — is a sharp blow to the heart. Findlay captures Hazel’s love and her suffering, her inability to resist her child’s cries, with terrible precision, and Cook is equally devastating in his rendering of a father who loves his child, but who will eventually hold his crying wife and tell her gently, “I know what you’re about to say … you’ll want to talk about duty, but what I think, what I honestly think is, this is your duty: You have a real duty to that child to fuck off at some point.”
What is our duty to our children? What’s our responsibility to those who will inherit the world that we helped to make — and that we helped to destroy? These are Kirkwood’s painfully resonant central questions, and it’s heartening to hear a playwright asking them with such forthrightness and skill. (In a way, The Children is the antidote for The Parisian Woman, a depressing mess of a play that’s running a few blocks away, whose author has roughly the same engagement with questions of responsibility as Pontius Pilate.)
Rose thinks she has an answer. That alien quality in her, that weird sense that she’s seeing everything as if for the first time: It’s certainty. The Rose of 38 years ago was never the responsible type. “I thought, one day I’ll be like Hazel,” she sighs, “I won’t smoke cigarettes and I’ll wear sun cream and plan the week’s meals ahead and get a slow cooker … and I’ll stop crying all the time and I’ll do exercise and have a really neat handbag and do washing regularly, not just when I’ve run out of knickers.” But the Rose who enters this little cottage on England’s eroding shore, with radiation blanketing the earth not ten miles away, this Rose is holding herself accountable. “I’m going back,” she finally tells Hazel and Robin, Annis’s eyes burning with calm, frightening energy, “to work at the power station.”
Rose’s mission: gather a team of engineers, all over 65 years old, and go back to work. “Let the young ones go” — the new generation of engineers who are there now, exposed to the station’s deadly radiation levels every day in their struggle to limit the damage and restore control, and take their place. “Lots of them have families,” Rose argues. “Their whole lives ahead. And I just feel — I feel very strongly: It’s not fair … because we built it, didn’t we?”
Here is death: slight and bird-boned, gray-haired and sharp-eyed, wearing a blood-stained pink T-shirt and sensible shoes, still deeply, dreadfully in love with her old friend’s husband, still feeling inadequate in comparison to that friend, still full of longing and sorrow and life. Macdonald creates a delicate, heart-wrenching sympathy amongst his trio, who eventually find themselves performing their own literal danse macabre: Rose pulls a janky laptop and speaker from her backpack and plays a song from their past, and all three fall into the silly, joyful choreography that Hazel made up for it so many years ago. As the three actors bop and twist and giggle on Miriam Buether’s tilted diorama of a set — the room sits surrounded by a wall of darkness on a precarious angle, as if the ground beneath is falling away — Kirkwood’s title starts to expand. Who are the children? They are angry Lauren and her three siblings; they are Hazel and Robin’s grandchildren; they are the “young ones” trapped in the nuclear plant; and they are Rose, Hazel, and Robin, who have such life and desire beating within them still. The question is, if it means taking responsibility, and if it means facing death, are they — are we — ready to grow up?
The Children is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.