What is the responsibility of retired parents to their children? Is it to continue to be supportive, loving, and available, even making sacrifices for them if a grown kid is having problems making it as an adult? Is it to relish and enjoy their grandchildren, spoiling them in ways they could not their own children? Is it to live their own lives, to do the things they now deserve to do – even at last to be a bit selfish? Or, is it to correct the mistakes that they and their generation have made in the past rather than leaving those issues to be cleaned up by their children’s generation? And which of these competing obligations/possibilities takes priority over the others?
These are some of the questions that Lucy Kirkwood poses in her 2018 Tony-nominated play, The Children that had its world premiere in London in 2016 – questions she does not answer for us but leaves us who are in the same Baby Boomer generation as the play’s three main characters to contemplate. Aurora Theatre Company opens the West Coast premiere of The Children in a production that ripples with the humor, the secrets, the mystery, the tension, and the moral dilemmas that Lucy Kirkwood has so skillfully embedded in her play, with Aurora doing so with a Bay Area veteran cast of three that is to a person superb under the patient but edgy pace of Barbara Damashek’s direction.
After a thirty-eight-year absence – and a rumor among old friends that she had killed herself – Rose suddenly appears unexplained at the home of her married former colleagues, Hazel and Robin, who are now living in a cottage of relatives after the recent, local disaster on the east coast of England. The three sixty-somethings were nuclear engineers together when the nearby nuclear power plant was built and where the resident married couple continued to work after Rose left for America until their retirement. Hazel and Robin had to move out of their near-destroyed home and farm after that plant suffered a core meltdown caused when a post-earthquake tsunami swamped the cooling equipment that the three and their colleagues had unfortunately in the 1960s placed in the plant’s basement – a disaster fictional to this play but eerily similar to the real calamity of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in 2011.
Rose first arrives with a nose bleeding on her white blouse while Hazel is home alone. Immediately, the differences between the two in almost every dimension expose themselves. Hazel is near evangelical in her advocacy for healthy habits like eating salads, doing daily yoga, and resisting all signs of aging like the two black hairs she recently found on her chin that frightened her because – as she tells a bemused but skeptical Rose – “This is how it starts isn’t it, the slow descent into the coffin.” Rose, on the other hand, shrugs, “Personally I find salads depressing;” snickers, “I get out of breath just looking at my sneakers;” and looks for the first chance when she can head open the cottage’s dutch door to have a cig – seemingly much less concerned about death’s possible door than Hazel.
Julie Eccles’ Hazel often listens to such personal admissions of Rose as well as her visitor’s memories and observations with paused looks of silent, frozen disapproval. She also shows discomfort with Rose’s loud outbursts of laughter or her sudden urge to hug Hazel, with Rose proclaiming in her highly affected, curly-cued manner of speaking, “I really missed you.” However when given the chance, Hazel loses no time focusing once again with rapidly fired, smile-infused chatter about her own life and likes – usually to both the smirked amusement and skeptically raised eyebrow of Anne Darragh’s Rose.
With the arrival of Robin (a highly emotive, quite playful James Carpenter), the dynamics become even more complicated as the unexplained approach-avoid behavior between the two women takes on a new dimension. There is surprise in Robin’s seeing Rose, but there is also a slightly sustained look that each gives the other that makes us not too surprised that Robin grabs Rose and snuggles his face into her hair once they have a few minutes to be alone. There are secrets that the two hold that we soon begin to understand are not so unknown to Hazel. The sparks continue to fly between the two women – mostly lit by Hazel – but also now often between husband and wife, also often due to Hazel’s pushing a point or question directed at Rose farther that Robin clearly feels necessary (like did Rose do Number One or Number Two when she went to the loo?). Playwright and director together structure the action so that conveniently each twosome of the three has time without the third, each time providing ample opportunities for a new flood of secrets, admissions, and confrontations to mix with memories and revelations both shared and surprising.
But as fun and intriguing for us as audience to watch the shifting moods and dynamics among these three whose histories together are much more than just being colleagues decades ago, The Children is not actually simply one of those spill-the-beans, explosive plays about long-held secrets that are revealed due to an unexpected visitor or event. The raison d’être of both the play and of Rose’s sudden appearance at the door only becomes clear deep into the one-hour, forty-five minutes of the no-intermission evening. Rose is there with a request that will shock and shake to the core both Hazel and Robin, providing all three of the talented actors on the stage with opportunities to impress us with their fine-tuned abilities as pointed challenges are made, accusations fly, new secrets emerge, and life-altering decisions are considered.
The request Rose brings is labeled “poison” by Hazel as she asks them to join her in a venture that Robin immediately calls “noble.” Like the earthquake of several weeks past, the ground begins to shake and the splits that were already there between Hazel and Rose – and even between Hazel and Robin – now suddenly expose themselves to be deeper than ever. At the heart is how each decides to follow in their own way the mantra Hazel has been oft to repeat: “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live.” The question becomes for these mid-sixty-year-olds, what does it mean to grow at their age … and to what end do they now live.
Mikiko Uesugi has created a cozy, comfy-furnished cottage by the sea that is populated by likes of lanterns and a Geiger-counter that props master Tatjana Jessee employs to help us understand the post-calamity, limited-electricity world where Hazel and Robin now live. The sounds of the nearby waves as well as the recalled echos of the recent tsunami and explosions are just part of Jeff Mockus’ impressive sound design, with Ray Ottenheimer’s lighting and Cassandra Carpenter’s costumes adding their own elements to complete a setting that serves well in every respect the moral-dilemma drama bit-by-bit unfolding before us.
Lucy Kirkwood’s script and Barbara Damashek’s interpretation in her directing leave us to make final judgments about the choices both made and pending among the three principals. Not everything is tied into a final knot at the play’s end; our imaginations and post-play discussions get to fill in the remaining blanks. But there is definitely a ‘what would you do if you were they’ that we are left wondering as we exit the theatre. For that alone, Aurora Theatre Company is to be applauded for offering this well-directed-and-acted exploration of The Children – children that we never meet but whose present lives and future heritage play huge parts in Lucy Kirkwood’s intriguing, engaging, and thought-provoking play.
Rating: 4.5 E
The Children continues through March 1, 2020 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org or by calling 415-843-4822.
Photos by Kevin Berne