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‘The Children’ — A little grown up, perhaps too late

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Like the catastrophe it renders in such deliberate and devastating fashion, Lucy Kirkwood’s play “The Children” originates in some everyday details. 

An old friend comes to call, and the emergency generators at the power plant require a location.

There is a rock-solid basis in the cascade of chance so vital to this play. For anyone directly affected, indeed for the planet itself, the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan was far more than a cautionary tale. “The Children,” presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, imagines a new normal, some years after such a disaster. And like the long-term cleanup of the tsunami and meltdown at Fukushima, the challenges are mundane — and apocalyptic. 

This brilliant drama uses three characters and a simple set as a microcosm for the grim realities of “the disaster” beyond the front door. Like the tide, slowly and inexorably, the details of the aftermath reveal themselves.

“The Children” is never a diatribe, and avoids scolding us for the choice to sow the dragon’s teeth by dumping carbon into the atmosphere, or siting a nuclear power plant near a shoreline. And the play also recognizes that nature runs by its own laws and caprice, each with risk and consequence, each beyond our control.

The equations binding humans to nature act as suspenseful engines in the story of our three characters. Rose (Francesca Annis) visits her old married colleagues Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) at their seaside cottage in England, not far from the shuttered nuclear power plant where they once worked as atomic engineers.

Over the course of one evening, we learn all we need to know as the characters face a survival they never anticipated.

And, we are included. Like the engineers, we are children of the Earth, and the author’s genius is in rendering the play’s denouement without sentiment, in the simplest understated way.

Despite the grim — and necessary — impact, the production overflows with grace and humor throughout its suspenseful tread forward. The British cast here is mesmerizing. We see their years fall away in a simple line dance, a bittersweet tribute to bygone days.

The designs (Miriam Beuther, sets; Peter Mumford, lights; and Max Pappenheim, sound) are haunting, and also hint at the simplest of pleasures, a ray of sunlight, or a fresh ocean breeze, precisely the joys that may one day disappear.

Director James Macdonald keeps a firm, unseen hand on the proceedings here, directing the cast from London’s Royal Court Theatre’s original production.

“The Children’ serves up some of mankind’s biggest challenges so well that we leave the theater with the impression that our energies in resolving conflict may be just as effective as rearranging those legendary deck chairs on the Titanic.

 

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