Award-winning playwright and screenwriter Lucy Kirkwood is known for her rich, nuanced characters. How fortunate that we meet three of them in Steppenwolf’s current production of “The Children,” a cautionary tale, or as some critics have called it “a disaster drama.”
Set in an isolated seaside cottage in East England on a summer evening, retired nuclear physicists and long married Robin and Hazel are startled by a visit from a former colleague. They haven’t seen Rose for over 38 years, and it’s quickly evident that there’s a complicated dark history, a mystery, between the three. Of course, there’s also an aftermath of a horrific disaster to deal with too.
Directed by Steppenwolf’s Artistic Producer Jonathan Berry, “The Children” teases us with a sense of menace and a nuclear power plant that is its own unspoken character.
Thankfully, there is somewhat of a payoff at the end and perhaps a redemption; it’s all captured by Chelsea Warren’s spot on set design (I particularly appreciated the rock like moat that separates the audience from the stage, reinforcing that it’s a crumbling coast line as well as the fact we’re observers). Veteran Steppenwolf ensemble member, the very charismatic Ora Jones is Rose. As always, Jones is her character-facially, vocally, and physically. I’ve followed her career for years, and she never disappoints. Jones, so likeable and congenial, maintains Rose’s secret and keeps us guessing as to what she really wants.
Janet Ulrich Brooks is the so cautious, so principled physicist with the elitist British accent. Sitting ram rod straight, Brooks portrays Hazel as a fierce lioness (with very exquisite manners). Brooks and Jones do a lovely tango of words and accusations but whom do you feel most sorry for? They both journey through grief, anger, and resignation.
Yasen Peyankov, who I loved in Dollhouse: Part Two, confused me. His lethargic British mixed with East European accent was distracting. Robin has long been married to Hazel, but the laid back Peyankov makes him an unlikeable and lazy scoundrel until the final scene. I wish he had been a stronger catalyst. Unfortunately the play is talky, very talky, and despite the fine acting, sometimes less than engaging. Sitting for almost two hours contemplating why humans meddle with the natural world without an intermission is also less than engaging, although I’d be hard pressed as to where there could be a break.
Despite the darkness, there is humor in Kirkwood’s eco-conscious drama (“a godmother is a non-denominational slush fund” and “retired people are like nuclear power stations-we like to live by the sea”). But who are the children of the play’s title? Who hears the distinct message expressed by Kirkwood herself?: “if we know the facts about climate change, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behaviors?” Perhaps that is the real mystery of “The Children.”
• Regina Belt-Daniels continues to do what she loves best: teach, travel, theater, and write reviews. She appears as Senator Karen Spelosi in the soon to be released Mike Preston film, “Citizen Dick” and is currently directing RCLPC Theatre’s summer production of “Mornings at Seven.”
. A retired District 47 Educator, she has appeared in or directed over 50 shows in the Northern Illinois area.