REVIEW: At People’s Light, The Children Brings Disaster to Our Doorstep

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L to R: Janis Dardaris, Graham Smith, and Marcia Saunders in The Children. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

Cameron Kelsall writes:

In the wake of tragedy, people often reassure themselves that whatever misfortune befell someone else couldn’t possibly happen to them. This applies to personal and natural catastrophe alike. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, now receiving a superb local premiere courtesy of People’s Light, wipes away that false sense of security, by examining how people react when disaster lands right on your doorstep.

How do you react, as well, when you had a hand in creating the precarious situation you find yourself living in? That is arguably the most important question in this taut drama, which premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2016 and came to Broadway the following year. Kirkwood takes up nuclear fallout as her calamity of choice, borrowing specific details from the 2011 Fukushima devastation — right down to the emergency diesel generators located inexplicably inside a flood-prone basement.

She transports these particulars from Japan to the English countryside, where Hazel and Robin (Marcia Saunders and Graham Smith), retired nuclear engineers, have retreated to a cottage just outside the impact zone to pick up the pieces of their lives. (Daniel Zimmermann’s scenic design renders this bucolic refuge with a slightly haunted detail, mirrored by Lee Kinney’s quietly eerie soundtrack.) Their idyll is shattered by the surprise arrival of Rose (Janis Dardaris), a former colleague long living in America, who returns with a disturbing yet compelling proposition.

Kirkwood infuses her tight script with shades of Pinter — listen for what is left unsaid as much as said — and a topicality that recalls the recent, politically charged work of Caryl Churchill. Yet she manages to keep her proceedings largely free of didacticism, even when the action dips unquestionably into polemical territory, and to create characters whose relationships to one another feel natural and compelling. Even when some predictable plot points appear — adultery, recrimination, resignation — you’ll likely find yourself invested and engrossed in these three people and their fraught connection.

That connection is due in no small part to the shared history of the cast, who cumulatively clock more than 100 years of experience performing on the People’s Light stage. The easy rapport between them is undeniable. Yet individually, under Abigail Adams’ direction, they create stirring portraits of people in conflict, with each other and with themselves. Dardaris finds the bravado and the hurt in Rose, Smith the arrogance and the tenderness in Robin. Saunders, playing beautifully against type, presents Hazel as a stoic and straightforward woman, but nearly every word she utters holds an extra layer of meaning.

The Children purposely leaves some of its questions open-ended, just as its title can be interpreted in several different ways. By not providing easy answers, Kirkwood invites her audience to consider how a society moves forward after tragedy, and the level of responsibility to which each person should hold himself. In doing so, she realizes what great art can achieve: She forces people to look at the world — a world they helped create, for better or worse — in a different way.

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Graham Smith and Janis Dardaris in The Children. (Photo: Mark Garvin)

David Fox adds:

Cameron and I saw The Children together and are largely in agreement about it. The previous week, we had both also attended David Hare’s The Vertical Hour (which I reviewed here), and I was struck by some similarities. Almost certainly, these are pure coincidence that proximity made vivid. I doubt I’d have noticed them otherwise. 

 But both plays center on a complex triangle relationship and frame a somewhat melodramatic story within a bigger political picture. For Hare, that is the Iraq war; In The Children, as Cameron notes, Kirkwood points to the even more potentially cataclysmic effects of climate change, seen here in the form of a coastal nuclear reactor meltdown.

 It’s also Kirkwood who emerges as the far more masterful playwright. Hare never convinces that Iraq for him is anything more than a backdrop in Vertical Hour, while The Children effortlessly brings the personal and sociopolitical together as a cohesive — indeed, inevitable­ — whole. What would happen, Kirkwood posits, if our existence were interrupted by something that changes daily lives an almost unimaginable ways? Would we go on as normal? And what do we do when that isn’t possible?  

 The results here are often funny and sometimes heartbreaking. Also (for me, at least) more disquieting than any horror movie I’ve seen in years. And far, far more profound. 

 I’ll stop with that — audiences should discover the details of The Children for themselves… and by all means, do so!  

I’ll add only that we’re very fortunate to see it here at People’s Light in an exceptionally well-acted production that navigates the tonal shifts with subtlety (Abigail Adams directs). Dardaris and Saunders are marvelous, and Smith for me especially so — I’ve admired his work for years, and this nuanced and quirky role is a wonderfully rich opportunity that he handles magnificently.  


The Children plays through February 9. For more information, visit the People’s Light website.

Categories: Philadelphia, Theater

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