Dystopias have been a cultural staple long before 2017, but the year was still full of them — Blade Runner 2049 and Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, just to name two. Theater has followed suit, but its offerings have been relatively unique, steering clear of the gloom and creeping dread which tends to define the genre. The back half of the year has featured Zoe Kazan’s smart marital drama After the Blast, which imagines our future existence as being entirely underground; a startlingly graphic if somewhat incoherent staged take on George Orwell’s 1984; and, now, The Children, Lucy Kirkwood’s talky Royal Court transfer, arriving on Broadway to ring out the year in appropriately post-apocalyptic style.
The Children may take place within an apocalyptic landscape, but you’d barely know it. Within the confines of its remote, modest cottage home is a whole world of personalities, ideas, humor, and conflict. Virtually anything could be going on outside, an idea rendered brilliantly in the stage design: The set’s a small, slightly tilted box surrounded by vast areas of dark, empty blue. We, like the characters, stay inside.
The premise, initially, seems simple enough: Hazel (Deborah Findlay) is a retired nuclear engineer in her mid-60s living off the U.K. coast with her husband, Robin (Ron Cook). Some sort of natural disaster occurred in the distant past, its effects swelled by the presence of a radioactive power station, leaving this particular couple’s existence in acute isolation. The electricity barely comes on, the “exclusion zone” is just minutes away, and their children are off living their own lives, from a far greater distance. Hazel’s determinedly simplistic attitude about their lives is challenged, however, by the arrival of Rose (Francesca Annis), an old friend she hasn’t seen in decades.
Rose arrives under mysterious circumstances; as the play begins, she’s standing in the kitchen with her nose bleeding, after Hazel smacked her out of fright, believing her to be an intruder. Robin is out, supposedly tending to cows on the farm, which gives Hazel and Rose the time to privately catch up. It’s all rather aimless. You can feel wisps of resentment, pain, and regret as they make small talk — as Hazel reveals how many kids she and Robin had, what they usually eat for dinner (mostly salads), whether they see the rest of the old gang. Annis is a bit stiff, at least in the early-going, but the always-brilliant Findlay brings astonishing life to the stage. She manages to turn even bread-slicing into a rousing piece of performance art.
Kirkwood, whose last play was the 2013 epic Chimerica, certainly takes her time here. The Children, which runs at a little under two hours without intermission, is defiantly without direction in its first third. The women chatter on and on, neglecting to speak aloud their most significant emotions and thoughts, but you get the point rather quickly: There’s more here than meets the eye. It’s unclear why Kirkwood so extends the back-and-forth; if the intent is to really bake the point of her characters’ concealment in, she ends up burning it to a crisp by the 30-minute mark. Even when Cook’s Robin joins the reunion and injects the production with new energy, the feeling is still that of a scattered drama hamstrung by its writer’s habits. (A little melancholy grieving here, some bathroom jokes there.)
Then, at last, when the parsnip wine starts pouring — yes, you read that correctly — The Children suddenly clicks into place. What at first seemed like an intimate domestic meditation on the post-apocalyptic emerges, much more intriguingly, as a nuanced, humane, yet scathing indictment of the Baby Boomers. The actual reason for Rose’s arrival is gradually made clear, at which point Hazel and Robin are forced to, in their own way, confront their past choices and present situation of selfish contentment. The world beyond them, which appears to us in haunting visual terms, is of no concern to them; Hazel at least considers the wellbeing of the cows on the farm, but they exist in abstraction. (She doesn’t even know if they’re really alive — though she will, in due time.) Rose thrusts them into thrilling states of reflection, and in retrospect the play’s inconsequential opening feels crucial. The gabby beginnings of The Children rather magically inform a climax of life and death stakes.
Apocalyptic stories are ubiquitous in popular art right now, and Kirkwood takes the necessary step of pushing the trend forward. Instead of envisioning future disasters, she treats them as inevitable, with a matter-of-factness, and probes our ability to atone for the part we play. The Children targets a specific generation to directly assess the looming threat of climate change. But it’s so deeply interested in Boomer selfishness that it also gets at the less obvious ways in which life can be impacted by inaction. Director James MacDonald tightens the atmosphere, tracing the shift in mood from an ordinary afternoon to a seismic evening with grace.
Kirkwood still sets out to do things her own way — the playwright has a gift for realism, with actors to match it, but tests the limits of its effectiveness as she gets exceedingly blunt with theme — and strains to tie the love affair between Rose and Robin to larger questions about braving the burdens of the past. Yet her singular voice finally, emphatically shines through. MacDonald captures an utterly striking image near the play’s end, with darkness enveloping Rose, bitterly smoking a cigarette in one corner, and Hazel, moving through yoga poses in another. It’s a tableau stuffed with ideas, two women of such drastically different philosophies and histories, together facing a pivotal moment of reckoning. The Children strives to remind that life, even at its bleakest, is still filled with bickering and dancing and those long conversations that never really seem to go anywhere. Even when it feels like the world is ending, life goes on. B