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Two retired nuclear physicists, a husband and wife both in their sixties, have taken up residence in a cozy coastal UK cottage, where they are visited without receiving prior notice by a former co-worker they haven't seen in some 38 years, also in her sixties. These are the only characters we see in Lucy Kirkwood's acclaimed drama The Children, now playing at The Arts Factory in a taut Three Bone Theatre production – and I can't say that any of the three physicists ever mentions his or her parents. Nor are there any flashback scenes in this 90-minute one-act that take us back four decades or more to when these over-the-hill atomic whizzes were young and previously together. So why exactly has Kirkwood called her dystopian drama The Children?
It's the sort of question that rewards repeated asking as the plot proceeds and we learn more and more about the past that Hazel, Robin, and Rose have shared – and the daunting future ahead of them. There are a couple of substantial answers that gradually emerge, the subtler of these turning out to be personal and intimate. The lives and careers of all three retirees have been shaped by past decisions to have or not to have children. More obvious, and more to the point, are the decisions that must soon be made in the wake of a disaster at the nuclear plant where all three of these physicists used to work, decisions that will impact not only their children, but also, locally and globally, the children – depending on how guilty, responsible, or obligated they feel.
We're obviously dealing with a catastrophe on a scale equal to those at Chernobyl in 1986 and, even more pertinently with the earthquakes and tsunamis enfolded into Kirkwood's concept, Fukushima in 2011, five years before the commissioned piece premiered in London. The cottage where Hazel and Robin are living is perilously close to the fenced-off area surrounding Ground Zero, which remains destabilized. Amid the brevity of Rose's visit, Kirkwood manages to spread a veil of nebulosity over the extent and permanence of the damage inflicted by the catastrophe. There's an ongoing rationing of food and electricity, but the couple's isolation and their aversion to the Internet puts a lid on the info we get. Hazel and Robin are retired, yes, but in light of their isolation, ignorance, and apathy, we might also say – as Rose probably would – that they are resigned, not really thinking about how they might best use their remaining time.
Certainly, the cottage dwellers aren't stressing over their culpability for the devastation that surrounds them when Rose intrudes. They would seem to be following Candide's example at the end of Voltaire's wicked, wicked novel, tending to their own gardens – or in Robin's case, their fields, where he makes his daily escape before coming home to dine on Hazel's homegrown salads. After 38 years, Hazel and Rose still have each other sized up rather well, Hazel knowing more about Rose's attachment to her husband – and vice versa – than he would believe, and Rose knowing something about Robin's wife that he never even suspected. As Kirkwood interweaves these personal revelations with the possible global crisis engulfing them, we began to understand how a group of nuclear physicists could have been blind for so long to the fiery red flags signaling so clearly to them that nuclear catastrophe was at hand. In their personal and professional lives, they have seriously miscalculated.
Directed by Three Bone co-founder Robin Tynes-Miller, with set design by Ryan Maloney and props by Jackie Hohenstein, this Charlotte premiere huddles the audience around the action in an intimate stadium layout like a miniaturized Circle in the Square on Broadway. The humble coziness of the setting, not at all contradicted by Davita Galloway's costume designs, make this cottage look more rusticated than most production photos that come up on a Google search. Likewise, Lillie Ann Oden and Michael Harris have a more weathered look than the London and Broadway marrieds, as if they had aimed their portraiture toward farmers in their sixties or physicists in their seventies. This rustic approach actually has some advantages, for Mitzi Corrigan as their visitor seems slightly younger, more active, more enlightened, and more modern than her hosts at first blush. She claims to have forewarned Hazel and Robin via email before appearing at their doorstep, and the laptop she is toting backs her up, looking out of place here in this back-to-basics abode. When it becomes apparent that Rose has been around the neighborhood for some time on her personal crusade, we cannot be surprised that this couple – steeped in stasis – has been unaware.
Another key thing that Tynes-Miller gets right, despite the longstanding hurts and grudges that will emerge among these former co-workers, is that all of them are good people, bonded together by the preventable tragedy that has broken them all. Oden has an edge to her as Hazel, dealing with the most guilts, savvy enough to be wary of Rose, yet the defensive chip on her shoulder is more like a light skillet held behind her back than a double-barrel shotgun dangling under her arm. She is polite, she is friendly, even loving, but you've got to coax it out of her now. As the former Don Juan of the nuclear plant, Harris mixes a shrunken amount of confident swagger into Robin and an occasional urge to dance into his prevailing disillusion, disappointment, and bitterness – with more to swallow heading his way. Beneath the crusty brooding, he's tenderer, more considerate than his spouse, still sharp enough to be shocked and to make a quick decision.
Rose has had the most hurt to deal with over the years, yet Corrigan poured a sheen of insouciance and quiet purpose over her – until the old hurts and grudges spurted to the surface. She needed to be impressive in tamping down these emotions, with clear-eyed pragmatism and poise to succeed in her ultimate mission of persuasion. Or was it seduction that motivated her, as Hazel had good reason to suspect?
Sadly, we cut all these people a hefty amount of slack because there is so much more than the overly hasty development of nuclear energy befouling our planet. Other industries are complicit in building a multitude of time bombs we constantly hear ticking around us, and many governments have dirty hands. Chernobyl and Fukushima have receded into the past, our gazes drawn to other filthy objects and humans. These ordinary people, for all the wrong they have done to each other, all the mess they have left for their children to clean up, are questioning if they should continue sitting back, enjoying their retirement years, and doing absolutely nothing about it. Maybe they're the ones who should pitch in and help, despite the fact that no one person living in a toxic irradiated wasteland can even begin to turn the global tide. No, these fine actors are telling us as we look over their shoulders: many, many more ordinary people need to be doing the asking – and the acting.
The Children continues through Saturday, March 26. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.