Like the nuclear disaster that inspired it, The Children is a simmering, explosive morality play and eco-drama that festers in its audience’s belly until a final blinding burst fades to black after a whirlwind 90 minutes.
On stage now at the Gamm Theatre, British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s Tony-nominated piece gives a jarring look at a trio of long-time friends and physicists forced to grapple with obligations to younger generations after a lethal nuclear accident they helped set in motion. Prompted by a 2011 incident in Japan, the piece asks them, and the audience, who would sacrifice their life to save others.
Guided skillfully by long-time Gamm stage star Steve Kidd in his first turn in the director’s chair, The Children centers on Hazel and Robin, a married couple living close to the nuclear reactor accident site, and Rose, returning after 40 years to lead clean-up efforts. Rose nudges the couple to join her, calling it their responsibility for helping to build the reactor in the first place.
The play, with layers of personal drama and moral battles, is set in the rustic cabin beyond the established spill zone perimeter, where Hazel and Robin relocated. With electricity limited after the accident, the cabin is lit by five jar candles that cast an eerie glow as the reason for Rose’s arrival unravels. The setting proves ideal for the flickering feelings of angst the storyline elicits.
Kirkwood threads dark humor throughout with pithy lines like “Death is like bulls – you can’t run away or they’ll charge,” and referring to our bodies as “rented meat.” Nervous chuckles ripple through an audience unsure if humor is appropriate. Not only is it appropriate, but it’s desperately needed in “The Children,” which is otherwise heavy and depressing.
Breathing life into the story is the small but mighty cast of Candice Brown (Hazel), Richard Donnelly (Robin) and Phyllis Kay (Rose). Kay, a Trinity Repertory regular making her Gamm debut, and Donnelly, are married in real life, but Kidd’s decision to sidestep the obvious marital chemistry with them as the play’s married couple and, instead, successfully weave a more complex layer of chemistry between the three actors, is brilliant. The result is both riveting and realistic.
Each turns in an outstanding performance, but the angst Brown pours into her character’s moral battle is so palpable that it draws the audience in with its familiarity, eliciting empathy in the process.
The Children isn’t an upbeat production, but it’s a necessary one. It underscores value for human life and the importance of taking responsibility, and it digs into the decisions humans have made that exploit and endanger each other and the earth itself. It’s on stage at Gamm through May 14, closing the season. For tickets, go to gammtheatre.org.