Theater Review: THE CHILDREN (Steppenwolf)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 29, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


The setting is the story in The Children, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere. Set designer Chelsea M. Warren depicts a cluttered seaside cottage off the east coast of England. It’s seen from across a cliff, as if an exhibit in a human zoo. This remote shelter is located just outside an “exclusion zone,” the site of a recent nuclear meltdown triggered by an earthquake and tsunami. (The double-whammy disaster inevitably recalls Japan’s 2011 Fukushima powerplant explosion.) A breakdown of uranium fuel rods now threatens to discharge radiation into the sea.


Lucy Kirkwood’s 2016 “eco-thriller,” a crowd pleaser in London and New York, teeters on the edge of an ecological “no man’s land.”

You hear an angry surf crashing on the rocks outside. It’s the brutal context for the left-over love of Hazel (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Robin (Yasen Peyankov), parents of four children and four grandkids. Condemned like the land, these retired nuclear physicists face their own breakdowns. A crisis tests their responsibility to “the children” as well as the planet.

Caught up in the catastrophic shutdown, they only get power after 10pm. The toilets, running on bad water, threaten to shut down altogether. Doggedly drawn to make the present like the past, Robin runs an organic farm stocked with doomed cows. (Perhaps Robin is too, since his nose bleeds suspiciously.)  Isolated, festering with frustrations, and only casually intimate, Hazel and Robin have issues of infidelity.

Their loyalties are tested by the arrival of a colleague Rose (Ora Jones) on a bleak summer evening. Back from self-exile in the states, returning to the scene of so much failure, Rose is haunted by the bells of a drowned offshore church. In short order we learn that this childless technician shares her own secrets with randy Robin: Jealousies arrive alongside the home-made wine and rancid crackers.

The Children is very slow to come to a boil: Indeed, this 105-minute play takes an hour to finally reveal the reason for Rose’s return. It’s a chilling challenge for her battered friends to step up and account for their “core” values, so to speak. Essentially a “parents’ crusade” to balance the 13-century “Children’s Crusade” against assorted infidels, Rose’s proposal will put their lives on a line that must be drawn.

At its best The Children interrogates the danger of taking the short view on emergencies with no expiration date. If we have to die, she implies, we should mean to as well, irreversibly “owning” our mistakes.

No question, three Chicago treasures—Peyankov, Brooks and Jones—richly explore and exploit the tangled pain of three too-tested friends. But, as the defensive laughter of the opening-night crowd revealed, perhaps preferring to lighten up the doomsday deadlines of this cautionary tale, director Jonathan Berry overplays the dark humor over the looming lessons Kirkwood delivers.

At times The Children seems as much an “eco-bedroom farce” as a problem play. Yes, Kirkwood lumbers her one-act with lots of exposition, some of it distractingly flippant, but Berry hasn’t satisfactorily separated the wheat from the chaff. Even if we don’t see them, we really need to feel the children in The Children. They get a bit lost in Berry’s forced friction.

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Children
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre
1650 N Halsted St
ends on June 9, 2019
for tickets, call 312.335.1650 or visit Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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