Review: Dancing on the precipice of survival in 'The Children' at Shakespeare & Company
LENOX — Lucy Kirkwood's masterly, chilling play, "The Children" — which is being given a competent if less-than-chilling production at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre — is set in a small cottage on a relatively remote portion of England's east coast. The cottage is the fall-back habitat of a husband-and-wife couple, Robin (Jonathan Epstein) and Hazel (Diane Prusha), retired nuclear physicists. Like the community around them, Robin and Hazel are doing the best they can to survive a devastating meltdown at a nearby nuclear power plant, where they both worked, and a related tsunami which has laid waste to the coastal community — its land, its people, its animals.
For Robin and for Hazel life now is a steady stream of adjustments and improvisations in the face of limited resources. Hazel, who would prefer to live even further from the exclusion zone that surrounds the nuclear plant than they now live, essentially maintains the household. She is hugely resourceful in the kitchen. For his part, Robin tends a small farm they own and goes, every day, he tells Hazel, to tend to the cows, even if their pasture is within the exclusion zone. Like everyone else in their community, Hazel and Robin are making do with less; keeping safe; keeping healthy; keeping alive; surviving.
"We're not dead yet my love," Epstein's edgily playful Robin says to Hazel at one point. "Our age, you have to show no fear to Death, it's like bulls, you can't run away or they'll charge."
"It's a little game, I play," Robin later explains to an unexpected visitor, Rose (Ariel Bock). "The top field runs right along the cliff and every year, I drive the tractor a little closer to the edge and every year the edge opens a little closer to the tractor."
It is emblematic of lives being lived, literally and figuratively, on the edge of survival. And while Epstein's Robin robustly embraces the challenge, Prusha's helter-skelter Hazel seems overwhelmed by events that are racing beyond yer control.
Rose (etched by Bock with breathtaking nuance and subtext) — whom we meet at the very opening of the play, standing just inside the cottage doorway, her nose bleeding — is no stranger to either Hazel or Robin, although it has been decades since they have seen each other. Rose, a nuclear physicist who worked with Hazel and Robin in the power plant, has been in the United States but this Fukushima-like incident has brought her back.
As Robin's name comes up in conversation between Rose and Hazel, you can just barely detect, in Rose's eyes, in a faint tension in her face, a feeling that there perhaps has been something more between Robin and Rose, some unfinished business in the intricate relationship among these three. And, indeed, it is clear as "The Children" evolves, that Rose is on a mission. There is clear purpose in her re-entrance into Hazel and Robin's life; a daring, bold proposal that will, if they accept, change their lives unalterably.
Bock's Rose is a fascinating figure. She's being treated for cancer; she smokes; she has chosen to be alone in her life — without partner; without children; without family; and she has come to terms with the choices she has made in her life. She is clear-headed and very much knows what she wants as she maneuvers to keep her emotions in place.
On its surface, "The Children" is a modest-seeming play that moves in its own manner and at its own time. Cosmic issues play out on an intimate scale. Certainly, mankind's interactions with nature frame "The Children." Within that framework, "The Children" raises questions about survival; about the choices we are made to face and how we respond; about our responsibilities to to ourselves, to our friends and colleagues; more important, to our children and the generations coming up behind them.
At his very best — "The Retreat From Moscow" in 2005 and "Madagascar" in 2014, both at Chester Theatre Company, and last season's "Mothers and Sons" at Shakespeare & Company — director James Warwick has shown an extraordinary facility for navigating the layers of personal relationships with astonishing delicacy and insight. In Epstein, Bock and Prusha, he certainly has the actorly talent at his command and yet the pieces don't quite come together. The dynamics don't resonate sharply. Some of that has to do with the play itself, which borders a bit on Conor McPherson territory as Kirkwood flirts with something "other" in the ether, where McPherson plunges right in. The arc of "The Children" is not quite fully formed in the intimate confines of Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
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