With customary professionalism, Simon Levy directs a flawless production of Lucy Kirkwood’s play, The Children. First presented in England in 2016, current events seemed to have surpassed the original message with which three former nuclear scientists try to come to grips with issues of global destruction. Despite the expertise of everyone involved in the production (producer Karen Kondazian, set designer Andrew Hammer, lighting by Christian V. Meijia, original music by Marc Antonio Pritchett and more), that serves the skilled dramaturgy of the playwright, however, I found The Children quite disturbing, not because of the cultural dilemma posed by any disaster of this magnitude, but for the almost cavalier way Kirkwood suggests that, if we’ll only pull together, we can fix it. If I didn’t know better, I would think I was back with Boucicault and the well-made play at the turn of the 20th Century.
In The Children, Kirkwood posits that, at some indeterminate length of time before, a nearby facility has suffered a nuclear accident. When the melt-down occurred, Robin (Ron Botitta) and Hazel (Lily Knight), a couple of retired nuclear scientists at the plant, moved a few miles away to escape contamination and all seems calm enough now. Robin spends his days dealing with the contaminated cattle he left behind, while Hazel tends hearth and home. When Rose (Elizabeth Huffman), a former colleague from the lab, arrives out of the blue, seemingly to revive old acquaintances, we learn more and more about their relationships, the accident, and the reason for her visit.
Kirkwood employs a series of dialogues that swirl and revolve around the three characters; withholding just the right amount of information about the threesome so that we become mesmerized by their personal stories to the end. Ultimately, though, Kirkwood’s message is subsumed by her own expertise. Because the playwright relegates a massive nuclear melt-down to the background of a domestic La Ronde, however, we lose sight of the issue itself. Instead, the trio seems to traverse through the many stages of grief, until there is only room for resignation. Even when we are reminded of their radioactivity, their plight stays personal and insular.
If I seem a little cynical, I suppose I am. The topic — nuclear disaster — may be a distant menace to most people, but not from me. My formative years were spent next to a nuclear research laboratory when fission was still little understood. Some of my classmates’ fathers kept radioactive material in their desks. Some of them later contracted brain cancer due to overground testing downwind from their homes. Personally, I will never forget the sheer terror one of my neighbors displayed when he came home from a small accident at the lab.
Closer to us here in the Los Angeles Basin, The Santa Susana Test Lab, run jointly by NASA and Boeing and overseen by the old Atomic Energy Commission (now DTSE), experienced similar mishaps around the same time in 1956. Because the area was never officially cleaned up, and although those accidents happened over 60 years ago, residents in the area are still experiencing unprecedented incidents of brain cancer and childhood leukemia even today.
All this is not to fault the Fountain Theatre, having mounted an extraordinarily tight production of the play. Perhaps The Children represents a first step to conveying enough dread that more of us begin to grapple with our climate problems. But we have much farther to go before we sleep.
Performances of The Children continue through January 24th , playing Thursdays through Saturdays and Mondays at 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029. Proof of vaccination is required. However, The Children is not a suitable play for very young children. Tickets range from $25 – 45.00, with $5.00 onsite parking available. Call (323) 663-1525 or online at www.FountainTheatre.com.