Stages

Review: There Are No Children in The Children at Steppenwolf Theatre—It’s a Cautionary Tale

Brooks, Peyankov and Jones. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

There are no children in Lucy Kirkwood’s play, The Children. The play’s storyline is built on “the disaster,” which we don’t learn the nature of immediately. The disaster was an explosion at a nearby nuclear power plant on the east coast of England, where the three characters worked as nuclear scientists. Jonathan Berry directs this production, starring three of Chicago’s finest actors, at Steppenwolf Theatre.

We live in a state and country where nuclear power is prevalent (there are six nuclear plants in Illinois, five of them in northern Illinois); and we remember the horrors of the Fukushima plant in Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear accident. But this is really a play about three people and their relationships and decision-making. The nuclear disaster is the backdrop. Scary, foreboding and potentially lethal, but the backdrop.

Hazel (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and her husband Robin (Yasen Peyankov) are living in a cottage loaned to them by a friend. As the play opens, Robin is off tending the farm at their old home, which is just outside the exclusion (radioactive) zone. An old friend and former coworker—Rose, played by Ora Jones—arrives for an unannounced visit. The first 40 minutes of this 100-minute play are taken up with somewhat awkward getting-reacquainted conversation between Hazel and Rose. And for narrative explication, which makes this whole scene drag on too long.

It seems that Rose left the plant 38 years ago and worked in America for years. Now she’s back with an unannounced purpose. She and Hazel were coworkers but never close friends, but it seems that Rose and Robin were extremely friendly. Robin and Hazel married and had four children. (Rose can’t stop herself from mentioning that two would have been more appropriate, environmentally.)

Brooks and Peyankov. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

When Robin returns from the farm, the relationships become clear. Hazel and Robin seem to have a loving marriage but Robin and Rose resume their romantic connection as if it was yesterday; it certainly wasn’t nearly four decades ago. When Rose announces her purpose in returning to work at the power plant, the relationships shuffle and reshuffle.

These three superb actors portray the post-retirement angst and love with warmth and spirit. Peyankov is outstanding in portraying Robin’s obvious depression, but this play belongs to Brooks and Jones. Both of them fully inhabit their characters. With joy, resentment, nostalgia and a few minutes of yoga.

Berry’s direction makes these personal stories come to life. Chelsea M. Warren’s scenic design recreates a cozy, cluttered English cottage, built at the edge of a receding shoreline, without running water or reliable electricity. Candles, gas lamps and a wood stove are part of the furnishings. Lighting design is by Lee Fiskness and sound by Andre Pluess. Mara Blumenfeld designed the costumes.

No, there are no children in Kirkwood’s 2016 play, The Children. The play’s title refers to future generations: the children who will suffer because of our inaction to remediate climate change, get rid of fossil fuels and nuclear power, and adopt wind, solar power and other energy sources. That would be a start.

The Children runs 100 minutes with no intermission and continues through June 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets are $20-$99 for performances Tuesday-Sunday.

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