Nuclear Powerless: Cleaning the Mess Boomers Leave Behind

Lucy Kirkwood's debut play on Broadway intertwines personal legacies with disaster.

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Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay and Francesca Annis in "The Children." Photos: Joan Marcus.

Big themes and human-scale stories twine with elegance, humor and some horror in Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Children, now running on Broadway in a Manhattan Theatre Club production. It’s the first NYC staging of a play seen most recently at London’s Royal Court Theatre; infidelity, guilt and generational legacy haunt a deceptively straightforward yet frequently surprising play.

We find three retired nuclear engineers reuniting in a remote cottage on the British coast. Two are married; one held jobs in other countries; all will eventually face huge decisions about their collective future. Outside, the world reels from a man-made nuclear disaster, and questions arise about who is responsible. Inside, the engineers must reckon with their personal histories with each other. The context for the reunion is at once a world that has endured, and is still enduring, catastrophe, and a call-to-arms that dwarfs and humanizes all other concerns.

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Deborah Findlay as Hazel and Ron Cook as Robin find a moment.

The first of the three people is Rose (Francesca Annis), who surprises Hazel (Deborah Findlay) in the house to which she and her husband, Robin (Ron Cook), have relocated after an accident at the nearby nuclear plant where they all once worked. The two women are either sides of a long-term affair with Robin; they don’t so much re-meet cute as cute-ish, since Hazel suffers a nosebleed that is never thoroughly explained. . We learn, in their catch-up conversation, of the effects of the nuclear disaster that has upended their region of the world: Could Rose’s nosebleed be the result of a defensive move that hit home or symptom of an illness that we learn of much later? Other quiet mysteries surface: What did people know and when did they know it? How have they endured emotionally all these years? What lies ahead?

Kirkwood’s delicate dance of conversation and reflection shrewdly confronts the guilt that their generation might feel about the world they will leave behind them. Even the title of the play is a subtle touch: children are mentioned but don’t appear. Or are these 60-somethings showing us their childhood at the same time that they’re moving past it?

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Francesca Annis as Rose.

The Children offers weight and lightness in equal measure. One character reflects: “Retired people are like nuclear stations — they like to live by the sea.” One character notes to another: “You are who I want to be when I grow up.” They are all, in their way, Peter Pan characters from their own Darling household — and indeed, they do finally grow up. Cook’s Robin, for example, perfectly captures what a roaming-eyed Peter Pan looks like, one learning to care for future generations. Annis’ Rose is nuanced, damaged and, as we learn, committed to a project that is finally revealed. Findlay’s Hazel delivers the often humorless backbone of the story, which is filled with misbehaving in the past.

With a layered punch, director James Macdonald delicately balances the personal disasters of the characters and the environmental disaster of the outside world — this is no romanticized, 1950s-style mystery of past passions and dalliances. What it is, really, is choreographed storytelling: it tacks both toward and away from the humans inside the rustic cottage. As the script succinctly puts it: “The room is at a slight tilt, the land beneath it is being eroded, but this should not be obvious to the naked eye.”

Accordingly, then, set designer Miriam Buether (responsible for Broadway’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 last season) has made the rake of the Friedman Theatre stage more potently obvious; it gives the actors something physical as well as emotional to play against. Like the characters, our eyes adjust to the tilt; we don’t truly focus on it until a rolling piece of fruit is caught by one of the characters without comment. Peter Mumford’s lighting and projection design similarly mixes the literal (regular power outages) with the poetic (projected waves and landscapes). Max Pappenheim’s soundscape also careens between deeply and delicately literal — tires on gravel, flush of a toilet, crashing waves of a shore.

At one point, Rose says to Hazel, “You are who I wanted to be when I grew up.” It is a privilege, not an intrusion, to watch these three grapple with their achievements and their faults as they learn to take responsibility for the world they will bequeath to the community that will succeed them.