“The Children” is about more than climate change and nuclear war, it’s about responsibility

Lucy Kirkwood's "The Children" is a 2018 Tony Award nominee. Photo by Maggie Hall Photography / Speakeasy Stage

By Kaitlyn Riggio
BU News Service

Even when acting with the best intentions, humans at times leave a mess for the generations that come after them. But whose job is it to clean up the mess?

Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children” explores this question. The 2018 Tony Award nominee follows three nuclear engineers who are coping with the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.

Although “The Children” is based on the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan, the play takes place in a cottage on England’s coast, and this scene is established before the first line of the play is ever spoken. As audience members take their seats, they can hear gentle ocean waves throughout the auditorium, which allows them to be fully immersed in the setting as the show begins.

“The Children” centers on a married couple living isolated from society following a nuclear disaster. One day, an old friend returns to their door after many years away. But she’s not back just to catch up: she’s back to fix the nuclear disaster.     

“The Children” is about more than just nuclear disaster. The clear personal tensions between the three characters work alongside the external tensions the characters are dealing with to create a multifaceted and emotionally engaging plot.

Married couple Hazel and Robin are retired nuclear engineers who worked on building the plant where the disaster occurred, and they’re living in a cottage on the coast to escape the disaster’s fallout. They are visited by Rose, an old friend, and it’s clear the three have a difficult relationship.

The personal conflict is conveyed seamlessly by the cast. Much of the beginning of the play happens between Rose, played by Karen MacDonald, and Hazel, played by Paula Plum, as they catch up after nearly 40 years apart. MacDonald and Plum have great chemistry. It’s believable that the two are old friends but also that there’s a slight unease between them. There’s an elephant in the room neither wants to address.

And the palpable tension only gets more intense when Hazel’s husband, Robin, played by Tyrees Allen, enters the scene. Their interactions show that he knows why there’s conflict and is knowingly adding to it. Watching the characters interact feels reminiscent of a soap opera – intense and entirely captivating.

The personal conflict that works alongside the external conflict raises the emotional stakes of the show and makes it impossible to turn away from.

But underneath all this, there are important conversations happening on stage, the most important of which asks tough questions about responsibility.

Responsibility has been an ongoing conversation in the present day. The habits and practices of previous generations have made life more challenging for the generation that’s about to enter adulthood, but nobody wants to take the blame. Younger generations are left to clean up the mess.

In “The Children,” the three characters worked on building the power plant that caused the nuclear disaster. Rose visibly feels guilty about this, especially about the younger nuclear engineers who are exposing themselves to dangerous nuclear waste in order to fix the power plant.

Rose feels that as the older engineers who built the power plant have a responsibility to go in and fix it, to spare the lives of the younger engineers. Hazel’s not convinced that they have to. The two characters act as stand-ins for the conflicting opinions on how to fix many of the problems of the present day.

Although on the surface it looks like a play to call environmental concerns into question, “The Children” is so much more than that. It forces audience members to think about the actions they take, their consequences and how they could affect the future.

As the show ends, the audience is left with one lingering, haunting question: Whose job is it to clean up the mess?

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children” premiered Feb. 28 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts and runs through March 28.

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