Steppenwolf presents a spellbinding Chicago premiere of 'The Children'
"The Children" - ★ ★ ★ ★
Don't expect to see kids onstage in "The Children," now receiving a spellbinding Chicago premiere courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Rather, the title of Lucy Kirkwood's 2016 drama refers to unseen children -- future generations who will be confronted by the environmental mistakes of those who came before them.
"The Children" begins with a startling image: A nuclear scientist -- her face bloodied -- stands alone in a cozy seaside cottage on the eastern coast of England. She's Rose (Ora Jones), and she's just been struck by her former colleague, Hazel (Janet Ulrich Brooks).
It's been nearly four decades since the two parted on less-than-ideal terms, so Hazel is rightly suspicious of Rose's out-of-the-blue return.
Both are also surprised that the other is still alive, especially as "The Children" gradually reveals that the whole country is dealing with the aftermath of an environmental calamity that sounds eerily like Japan's 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
What's delicious about Jones and Brooks' performances is how the two women quickly and hilariously revert to social pleasantries. But those niceties conceal steely suspicion, especially as Hazel and Rose try to use this reunion to sort out where the other is emotionally and physically in light of the disaster.
Things come more into focus with the arrival of Hazel's husband, Robin (Yasen Peyankov). He spends most of his days tending to cows on their former farm property, despite the fact that they're within the exclusion zone for dangerous levels of radiation.
Robin takes Rose's return in stride, and playfully acts like a schoolboy as he rides a recovered tricycle around the house. With some wonderful acting on Peyankov's part, he later reveals Robin's deep well of guilt for his role in turning Rose and Hazel into bitter rivals. He's also depressed at the current course of his life.
Far from being a doom-and-gloom lecture, however, "The Children" bravely focuses on three retirement-age characters who still have massive stores of passion, resentment and mystery. And Kirkwood provides plenty of fuel to motivate her characters in this engrossing drama.
Director Jonathan Berry helms a strong production that achieves an ideal balance between laugh-out-loud humor and contemplative regret. Berry's expert design team does a fine job of mixing light and dark as well, particularly with Chelsea M. Warren's cozy cottage perched perilously close to an eroding coastline.
Lighting designer Lee Fiskness conveys the harsh realities of the script in terms of power cuts and how Hazel and Robin have to make do living with less access to electricity. Fiskness and sound designer Andre Pluess also team well to illustrate the play's noisy and eerie open-to-interpretation ending.
In "The Children," Kirkwood masterfully tackles the global issue of climate change while also keeping the story deeply personal and approachable. It greatly helps to have Steppenwolf's insightful artists to illuminate Kirkwood's drama with the thought and passion that it so richly deserves.
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Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday (also select Sundays), 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (2 p.m. matinees select Wednesdays); through June 9
Running time: About one hour and 45 minutes without intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: Features mature language; for teenagers and older