Review: THE CHILDREN at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Review: THE CHILDREN at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Lucy Kirkwood’s aptly titled THE CHILDREN, now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, poses thought-provoking questions about the responsibilities that humankind has to future generations. Kirkwood’s intentionally crafted play filters these broad themes through the specific narrative of her three characters, all nuclear scientists. The larger repercussions of the characters’ careers means that Kirkwood can dive into the meaty content of the play with both a particular emotional arc and also with a universality that should resonate with all audience members. Because of this, THE CHILDREN comes across as rather pointed in certain moments, but the weight of the issues that Kirkwood presents allows it to resonate deeply.

THE CHILDREN opens in a quaint British cottage (Chelsea M. Warren has designed a magnificently detailed and charming set), where all appears tranquil. Of course, Kirkwood has set up this calm appearance so that she can tear down any sense of calm over the course of the play. Audiences first meet Hazel (Janet Ulrich Brooks), who has recently reunited with her old friend, Rose (Ora Jones). Brooks and Jones convincingly portray that awkward state that comes from knowing someone but not having seen them for years; both actors regard each other with interactions that teeter between formal and familiar. Kirkwood also uses these two characters to set up a clear dichotomy: Hazel is married with four children and has a clear dedication to her health and physical appearance. She tells Rose that she practices yoga every day, focuses on clean eating, and rarely drinks. Rose, on the other hand, is a single woman, and she has a clearly established smoking habit. Yet Rose has returned to England after nearly four decades to right a larger situation that she believes is wrong. Hazel is not so sure.

The characters soon reveal that they worked together at a nuclear plant, which ended up malfunctioning and leaking dangerous levels of radiation into the surrounding areas. Hazel also makes clear that she and her husband, Robin (Yasen Peyankov) were forced to abandon their home after it was flooded; whether this wave was caused by the plant or led to the plant’s malfunction is unclear. But either way, the wave becomes a powerful metaphor for the destruction wrought by the nuclear plant.

Kirkwood asks her characters—and the audience— to reckon with the consequences of this disastrous situation and whether or not these scientists are obligated to clean up the mess they made. While Hazel is firmly dedicated to self-preservation, she seems less inclined to take responsibility for the plant’s failure. She argues this in part because she wants to ensure she can remain a good parent to her four children, especially her oldest Lauren, who is clearly troubled. In an early scene, Rose asks after Lauren repeatedly—giving the play’s title yet more significance. THE CHILDREN not only asks what social obligations we have to future generations in general but also to the offspring we may (or may not) choose to bring into the world.

Under the direction of Jonathan Berry, Brooks, Jones, and Peyankov all give fine performances that add further nuance to the thorny questions Kirkwood poses in the play. Kirkwood has her characters explore the issues at hand on personal and universal levels, and these actors allow that exploration to unfold on both planes. As Hazel, Brooks portrays a necessary wariness at Rose’s reappearance and a firmness in her character’s point of view. Brooks is truly one of the most versatile actors in the Chicago theater, and she demonstrates that yet again with this role. She showcases Hazel’s steely exterior, but her performance also allows Brooks the space to unravel that reserve bit-by-bit as the play progresses. Peyankov provides a neat foil to Hazel’s character as Robin. In one of his early scenes, Peyankov careens around the stage on a children’s tricycle while delivering his lines. He gives Robin a seemingly casual nature, but he shows us how underneath the character is struggling to reconcile his past actions. As Rose, Jones has a keenly wry line delivery. She demonstrates how Rose is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with Hazel and defend her convictions. Jones makes her Rose cunning without being outright menacing. And as the events of the play escalate, the actors grow deeper with their emotional performances until THE CHILDREN reaches its boiling point.

THE CHILDREN runs through June 9 in the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted Street. Tickets are $20-$99.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

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