By Helen Epstein
The production strikes a fine balance between comedy and seriousness, public and private concerns, bringing a complex and compelling play to vibrant life.
The Children by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by James Warwick. Staged by Shakespeare & Company at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA, through August 18.
Anyone who’s read the remarkable memoir Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala about the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, or followed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan, is familiar with the themes of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children. But if you are unfamiliar with this award-winning young British playwright’s prior work, you’ll be unprepared for this understated, witty script, and the way the dramatist slowly reveals her full hand, complicating what seems a simple story about three retired scientists into a multi-layered one. The intermissions of many plays offer theatregoers a way out, but the interval for The Children feels too long; you want to get back in and find out what will happen next.
In this drama, the wave that leads to a nuclear power plant meltdown hits the coast of England. Two 60-ish scientists, Hazel and her husband Robin, retired early to live on a farm where they have raised their four children and several cows. Their flooded, smelly, silt-filled home and animals are now in the high-radiation “exclusion zone.” Their four children are grown and live elsewhere. They themselves have taken refuge in a borrowed cottage. Armed with a Geiger counter and oil lamp (for when the power goes out), they have begun what they call the “new chapter” of their lives — or the “slow descent into the coffin.” Then their 67-year-old, still seductive colleague Rose — “no children, no marriage, no pets” — unexpectedly turns up.
The Children provides an excellent opportunity for three of Shakespeare & Company’s veteran actors: Ariel Bock (Rose), Jonathan Epstein (Robin), and Diane Prusha (Hazel). I have always admired the work of Prusha, a character actress who has rarely gotten as rich a central role to sink her teeth into. It is a pleasure to hear the actress explain away her PTSD and say “Rose we heard you were dead. So it was a bit of a shock.”
Epstein (whom habitués of Shakespeare & Company have enjoyed watching in many major roles for the past four decades) gives a typically polished performance as the self-satisfied male of this interesting triangle. And Bock makes the most of being cast in a more charismatic role than usual. Watching how the three of these long-time company members perform in concert is a treat.
James Warwick, who directed an excellent production of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons last summer (Arts Fuse review) has once again struck a fine balance between comedy and seriousness, public and private concerns, bringing a complex and compelling play to vibrant life. Let’s hope that Shakespeare & Company brings more of Kirkwood’s work to the Berkshires.
Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and Children of the Holocaust. She has been reviewing theater for the Arts Fuse since 2010.