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“The personal is political” was a feminist rallying cry long before British playwright Lucy Kirkwood was born. The aphorism offers instruction not merely on how to live but how to create art, and with The Children—a quietly tectonic eco-drama receiving its regional premiere at Studio Theatre following a Broadway run last year—Kirkwood proves she’s mastered the lesson as well as any living playwright. She’s boiled an examination of what sort of sacrifice will be required if our species is to survive the century into a 95-minute, three-character drama that unfolds entirely inside a kitchen.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Didactic, preachy, hand-wringing? No, no, and only a little. At issue is the existential threat we created for ourselves when we dared to split the atom. Kirkwood’s genius, like pioneering nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford’s, is in her manipulation of forces invisible—memory, jealousy, desire, duty—but profound in their effect.
The Children is set in the aftermath of a disaster at a coastal power station in England modeled on the real one that struck Japan in March of 2011: A tsunami followed an earthquake, toppling a line of poisonous dominoes that culminated in the meltdown of three of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant’s six nuclear reactors.
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In this fictional version, Hazel (Jeanne Paulsen) and Robin (Richard Howard), a pair of long-married, now-retired nuclear engineers who helped open the British plant 40 years earlier, have retreated to a relative’s vacation cottage because their farm is inside the irradiated Exclusion Zone. They’ve adjusted their daily routines in deference to the scheduled blackouts, drinking bottled water, staying offline, and lamenting the erasure from their diets of the meat and eggs their now-contaminated livestock once gave them.
As the play opens, their long-ago colleague Rose (Naomi Jacobson) has dropped in so suddenly that Hazel bloodied her nose, mistaking the unexpected guest for a hostile intruder. But just because Hazel didn’t intend to punch Rose in the face doesn’t mean she’s glad to see her. Rose’s shaking of the marital tree will prompt some George-and-Martha-style bloodsport between the old couple, once its male half arrives, that is. For a long time, we’re alone with Rose and Hazel in that kitchen, catching one another up on the middle decades of their respective lives while an uncanny tension hangs over them.
Each observation of their differences feels like an accusation: Hazel has raised four children with her husband; Rose never married and had none. Hazel stayed in England; Rose went to America. Hazel is a disciple of yoga, exercise, and organic dining; Rose, even after a battle with cancer, smokes cigarettes. Hazel knows which cupboard in this borrowed house holds the drinking glasses … and Rose does, too.
Why Hazel, so candid and rational, is so clearly threatened by Rose’s arrival points to something of greater portent than an expired love triangle. Anyone who followed the news from Fukushima eight years ago might have an inkling, if not a road map, of where Kirkwood is going. Still, the reason for Rose’s visit, when at last she reveals it, lands with the force of, well, an earthquake.
Paulsen’s wholly unaffected performance is the primary reason. Less familiar to local audiences than the prolific Jacobson, she’s an ideal foil. Her suspicion of her old acquaintance battles with her compulsion to be polite in a way that feels utterly natural and ungoverned. It falls to Paulsen to give us the play’s only direct images of the disaster (“it looked like the sea was boiling milk”). In underplaying this monologue, she makes her recollections all the more vivid for us.
If Jacobson seems a little more overdetermined in early moments here than we’ve come to expect from her, well, Kirkwood’s slow-burning plot provides a justification for that, too. Richard Howard’s turn as Robin, who welcomes Rose rather too warmly for his wife’s liking, is a sensitive portrayal of regret masked by conviviality. Without undervaluing the delicate work of this strong trio of actors, one must recognize how convincingly Kirkwood, born in the Orwellian year of 1984, has imagined the inner lives of characters roughly twice her own age.
Studio’s 2015 production of Kirkwood’s superb international thriller Chimerica featured a dozen actors playing multiple roles and ran about three hours. That The Children has so much smaller a footprint (and only 25 percent as many feet!) befits its ecological theme. We’re all going to have to get by on less in the coming decades and—optimistically—centuries.
That makes director David Muse’s decision to close the show with an expensive-looking, unscripted flourish that doesn’t add much to The Children’s already hefty emotional payload a bit of a head-scratcher. The play itself is not: It doesn’t rely on the magical realist filigree that animated, for example, Ella Hickson’s Oil—a much more expansive drama about learning to ration our material comforts, also by a millennial Englishwoman playwright, also first produced in 2016.
Oil’s U.S. premiere at Olney Theatre Center this past March was a knockout. That means The Children is only the second most haunting production to crash over a D.C. stage this year. I’ve no doubt Kirkwood, railing against the consequences of unchecked individualism, is okay with that.
To June 9 at 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$97. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.