“At PURE, we try to do things for a reason. We try to do plays that mean something,” says Randy Neale, director of the theater’s upcoming presentation of Lucy Kirkwood’s Tony Award nominated play, The Children. The play premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2016 before being brought to the U.S. for shows on Broadway and at the Steppenwolf in Chicago. Now this powerful eco-thriller arrives in Charleston, starting this Thursday.
The Children is an intimate, psychological examination featuring only three characters played by Tish Lynn, Mark Landis, and Lynda Harvey. “This is an excellent cast of really experienced actors,” says Neale. “They’re very committed and touching people, and I believe it’s going to be very affecting. The story is compelling; it’s personal; it’s touching; it’s funny; and it’s immediate.”
The play’s premise is terrifying in its probability. There’s been a disaster at a nuclear power plant in England. A fault line off the coast has shifted, triggering an earthquake. From the earthquake comes a tsunami. The tsunami overwhelms the power plant and swamps the backup generators — that were unwisely stored in the basement.
If you know your nuclear history, you know this fictional scenario in England has actually happened in reality. It’s a nearly identical series of events to the radioactive nightmare of Fukushima.
Two retired nuclear physicists who once worked at the plant, Hazel and Robin, have retreated to the relative safety of a remote cabin on the coast. Outside the cottage doors, the world struggles to overcome the nuclear consequences. Hazel and Robin plan to live out a comfortable, minimalist existence removed from their old life. But then they’re visited by an old friend and former co-worker, Rose, who arrives with some difficult decisions in tow. The details are for you to discover, but it ultimately comes down to how much these characters are willing to sacrifice.
“They are faced with some hard choices. It’s a very human story between three people that has humor and affection and fear,” says Neale. “Really, the overall theme of it is about generational responsibility. Are we, the older generation, responsible for cleaning up the messes we’ve made before passing them on to the future generations? And it’s about what it means to pursue a life of convenience without looking at the consequences, which is where we are in our environment at this moment.”
These profound realities are, for Neale, what make the play so powerful. “As a society, we’ve always taken the easier way and the more convenient way without considering what the problems with that are. What kind of a mess are we leaving our children? For me, this is the number one concern of my life.”
Kirkwood has said in interviews that the play is not meant to be a finger-wagging at the baby boomer generation. You’re given the realness of these characters. They’re likeable; they’re conflicted; they’re human. You may see yourself in them. You may consider that, had you been in their shoes, you would have made similar choices. The intention is to create a space for the audience to sit with the characters as they confront the same issues we’re all facing.
So who are the children of the play’s title? The children of these three characters? Their grandchildren? Or maybe all of us? “There are lots of questions in the play about agency,” Kirkwood says in an interview for Broadway. “What is the state of being a child? The state of being a child is to be powerless and to feel like you can’t affect our world, and the whole play is a conversation about how we affect our world.”
The Children is a serious play, but it’s punctuated by funny, warm moments. There’s a humorous and touching normalcy in witnessing three old friends getting together, catching up, and telling stories. “Just because this choice is in front of them doesn’t mean they can’t have fun,” says Neale. “In some ways, because of the gravity of their situation, they speak the truth a lot. They’re sharing truths with each other that they may never have except in an extreme circumstance. It’s an important generational story, but it’s also more importantly a human story.”