3 out or 4 stars
The Children written by acclaimed British playwright Lucy Kirkwood and helmed by celebrated Chicago director Jonathan Berry is now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre. Filled with dark humor, this thought-provoking and haunting eco-thriller features three of Chicago’s top actors tackling complex roles: ensemble members Ora Jones (Rose) and Yasen Peyankov (Robin) with Janet Ulrich Brooks (Hazel). On a summer evening in an isolated seaside cottage in the East of England, a pair of retired nuclear scientists are startled by a visit from a former colleague. As some crackers and wine are trotted out, so are various old jealousies, leading to the true reason for Rose's sudden reappearance: the revelation of a chilling and dangerous plan.
Jones and Ulrich Brooks play off each other well with relatable and sickening humor. The two seem to act as foils of the survivors in this radiation ridden world. “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live,” says Hazel. While Rose looks at things with a bit more light and boldly responding to Hazel’s ironically healthy lifestyle with, “I’ve always thought salad is depressing.” Only a taste of the sharp jabs and hilariously relatable statements within this work. Jones has portrayed a wide range of roles at Steppenwolf including recently Familiar, The Roommate and The Doppelgänger (an international farce). Ulrich Brooks is a company member of TimeLine Theatre and recently seen in Plantation (Lookingglass) and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Jeff Award nomination, Goodman). The two women were under the direction of Gigi Buffington for Voice and Text. Being British is something very specific, the speed and dialect especially is something audiences may have to get used to. In particular, the pacing at times seemed off, but to be honest I believe it is something more to the point of how we communicate naturally. The realistic way of ranting to someone or being in the middle of story and then being asked a question, we process it after having completed a sentence or thought, respond, and dive back into what we were saying without even realizing. Additionally, there’s this particular quirk I find with British that is something like constant remarks back and forth, as if confirming - like shorthand verbal communication. It was impressive that Ulrich Brooks and Jones were able to capture this feeling of authenticity without getting caught up in it.
The set was truly a model of isolation. The modest inside with its wooden accents and faded green paint feels cozy and homey. The audience is forced to take this comforting visual and add a dash of radioactivity. The elevated stage to expose the under beams of the house seem ominous and as if showcasing the crevices beneath the warm safe space. The unsuspecting now is askew somehow. Chelsea M. Warren does an excellent job with achieving this through their scenic design.
Furthering this is the dramatic skeletons in the closet that get dragged out, the impending uncertainty of the future and where it all collides. Each character’s perspective is vastly different in what is happening all because of their small part to play in it. Playwright Lucy Kirkwood shares, “I had been trying to find a form for a long time to write about climate change in a way that was emotionally rather than intellectually driven. What is important and theatrical to me is not the facts of climate change – we all know the facts now, and most of the average theatre audience will believe in them too. What is interesting is this: if we know the facts, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behaviors?”
Kirkwood challenges our perceptions and lacking action. It is as if a mirror is being held up to the audience at the potential outcomes and high stakes scenarios the playwright wishes to illustrate that could become all too real in a matter of years. Ensemble member Yasen Peyankov, plays Robin husband to Hazel is caught in the cross fire between two very strongly opposing sides. Hazel wishes to continue on a higher than almighty route of self improvement while you can, while Rose’s path has lead to unforeseen experiences sparking in her the call the action. Peyankov plays the man in the middle wonderfully through such callous, back handed dark comedy. It’s as if the sarcasm is dripping from the lines. Lee Fiskness (Lighting Design) and Andre Pluess (Sound Design) cinch together this piece with bookend presence that makes the take home message and reflection that more powerful. Deafening waves thematically crash through the auditory space.
One aspect of the writing that I particularly enjoyed was this concept which revolved around the title. “The Children” not only mean the next generation, but it is also how current generations are acting like children. Unable to share resources, easy to anger, arguing amongst themselves with no proper resolution and passive aggressive grudge to follow. This block in mentality contributes greatly to the unresolved question: who will clean up the disastrous mess? A thought provoking and powerful work that should definitely get audiences talking about the realities in our own world outside the theater and the way our generation will leave it.
The Children is running now through June 9th, 2019 at Steppenwolf Theater Downstairs Theatre. For tickets or more information, contact Audience Services (1650 N Halsted St) at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!