Saturday, February 22, 2020

Solving Nuclear Disaster So “The Children” Don’t Have To?

R. Hamilton Wright, Jeanne Paulsen, Carmen Roman in The Children (Nate Watters)

The Children
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through March 15, 2020

Lucy Kirkwood’s contemporary play, The Children, includes unusual characters – retired nuclear scientists, and focuses on climate disasters with surprising ideas. Performing now at Seattle Rep, the play is both a kitchen sink drama, literally in the kitchen of a dingy decrepit farmhouse, and an exploration of a world-class dilemma.

It begins slowly and builds slowly. So, one must summon patience. We first see Hazel (Jeanne Paulsen) in this kitchen who is interrupted by Rose (Carmen Roman), an old friend/adversary. Rose has separated herself for years and it takes a fair while for her reasons for returning to fully emerge.

Hazel and her husband, Robin (R. Hamilton Wright), are living outside of an exclusion zone after a huge nuclear disaster. The area of the disaster, this time, is on the coast of some portion of the U.K. Kirkwood developed this play after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. So, their home and farm, inside the area, has become toxically irradiated. Electricity is regulated and scarce, so they can barely use devices like cell phones and computers and therefore are thrown back toward an older, non-technical way of life. But they’re coping.

We become aware that Rose has had a separate relationship with Robin and we think it’s a secret from Hazel until she shows that she knew all along. So, the relationships are difficult, but still important. All three know each other well.

The three veteran stage actors know what they’re up to and director Tim Bond has a firm hold on the gradual pacing of the show until the main subject area is revealed. Paulsen, in particular, is especially compelling and I’m grateful to see her stage work again.

Plot reveal: If you don’t want to know what Rose has up her sleeve, stop reading now and make plans to see the show yourself.

The nuclear disaster is Kirkwood’s main focus. The nuclear plant desperately needs stabilizing, but the work is deadly. Still, people are attempting it. And Rose has a unique and deadly idea: she’s recruiting old scientists and engineers to volunteer to go into the plant and be the workers who replace young workers so as to save the young by sacrificing themselves.

Rose never became a mother, but Hazel and Robin have four children. So they both understand that the youth should be free from their mistakes, and also that having grandparents alive and well is good for young people, too! But Rose has some compelling words for them about what their life work in science stacked up to.

“We built a nuclear reactor next to the sea then put the emergency generators in the basement! We left them with a shit-show waiting to happen and no evacuation procedure! And then they were the ones standing in the dark, trying to fix something we could have predicted, we should have predicted, opening valves by hand, even though it was already too late!”

Rose tells them that some people are already signed on to the project, but time is of the essence. We, the audience, realize that as these early volunteers die of radiation poisoning, there will be a need for hundreds of such older folk to take their places. Yet, there is a certain justice in this generation trying to fix what this generation wrought.

While this plan is intriguing and makes some kind of societal sense, the entire play somehow did not gel for me. There was a disconnect of emotions and then the ideas became technical and ideological rather than urgent. Also, I didn’t invest in or believe their relationships with each other. It ended up feeling flat. Still, I enjoyed older actors on stage with real reasons to be there and a full scope of thoughtful content.

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