When the lights first come up on Lucy Kirkwood’s play “The Children,” blood is pouring out of a woman’s nose and staining her shirt.
Karen MacDonald, playing the character of Rose, works on the scene inside a rehearsal hall at the Calderwood Pavilion, tilting her head upward and holding the bridge of her nose to stanch the (pretend) bleeding. Fellow Boston theatrical luminary Paula Plum, as Hazel, enters with a towel and tries to assist, but Rose seems distracted and keeps asking about Hazel’s children. After the bleeding subsides, Hazel nonchalantly mentions that she heard Rose had died. There are other foreboding signs. When an apple rolls off the table, you realize the weathered coastal cottage is tilted at a slight angle, suggesting that all is not quite right along the rural English seaside.
Indeed, “The Children” is pervaded by a mounting sense of dread. This British eco-thriller about environmental catastrophe and the costs of our human ambitions is a slow burn, taking its time to spring its biggest revelations. SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the Boston premiere of the critically acclaimed play, a Tony nominee for best play and a hit in both London and New York, from Feb. 28 to March 28 at the Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts.
“It’s like a detective story,” says director Bryn Boice before rehearsal. “I loved the fact that the play peels like an onion, like a great mystery novel or thriller. There’s just layer and layer and layer to pull back. You’re given a new nugget of information at every page that helps audiences put together the lives of these three people and what they’re facing.”
According to Plum, who, like MacDonald, is an Elliot Norton Award winner for Sustained Excellence, “It’s luscious and rich and full of subtext and unexpected twists and turns in the relationships. Every page is a surprise. It’s like following a murder mystery — except there’s no murder. [Kirkwood] keeps dropping little breadcrumbs for you along the way.”
As the play unfolds, we learn that Rose and Hazel, both retired and in their 60s, are old friends and colleagues who worked together, along with Hazel’s husband Robin, at a nearby nuclear power plant. The three nuclear physicists and engineers were among the first staff members in the facility’s earliest days. They haven’t seen each other in over 35 years, and their lives have taken very different paths in the intervening years. Hazel, a natural caretaker, raised four children with Robin. Rose, something of a wild child, spent time in America and is unmarried. After catching up on their lives and waiting for Robin’s return home, Hazel pointedly asks Rose why she’s unexpectedly dropped in after all these years. The answers to that question provide the bracing crux of the drama.
Like towering British dramatists Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, “the lines in the play rarely mean exactly what they say,” explains Boice, who won an Elliot Norton Award last year for directing two Churchill shorts. “There are people hiding things from each other and a lot of secrets in this play.”
Rose’s arrival, according to Tyrees Allen, who plays Robin, “reveals the fissions and cracks in [his and Hazel’s] marriage.”
The ground beneath their feet has also cracked open. A few months before, we discover, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami precipitated a devastating nuclear accident at the plant where they all worked. After retirement, Hazel and Robin started running a nearby farm. But they had to evacuate and decamp to this cottage just outside the contaminated “exclusion zone.”
In the wake of the catastrophe, the three characters have followed different paths. Hazel has attempted to adapt her old life to the new reality. She learns what foods are safe to eat, washes vegetables with bottled water, and still practices yoga every day. Robin, meanwhile, tries to carry on but has been returning to the farm to check on and feed the cows. Rose, for her part, has taken on a vastly different mission. “Even though she has no children, she feels the pressure of wanting to pass on the best possible world to future generations,” MacDonald says. “It makes us think: What are we willing to sacrifice when it really comes down to it?”
Indeed, each character faces the crisis in ways that reflect who they are — but also how they think of themselves. “Rose says of Hazel, ‘That woman holds up the earth.’ She’s a hyper-organized, hyper-capable, Type-A personality and knows how to balance work and family,” Plum says. “She also has a childlike quality that’s endearing, but she’s really in denial and a bit willfully naive. You just want to shake her and say, ‘Wake up!’ ”
As for the restless, ebullient Robin, “He’s a complicated man. In some ways he hasn’t really grown up,” says Allen, who appeared in SpeakEasy’s production of “Between Riverside and Crazy” in 2017. “I think sometimes men of a certain age, they never really get over themselves.”
Kirkwood, a 36-year-old British dramatist whose epic drama “Chimerica” captured London’s 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Play, has said she wanted to write about climate change and the environment for a long time, but struggled to find a compelling narrative or way in. Then the Fukushima nuclear disaster happened in Japan in 2011, and she heard about a group of retired engineers, scientists, and power station operators who volunteered to work on the front lines of the crisis. That lit a spark in her brain, and out came “The Children.”
A catastrophe at a nuclear power plant became a compelling metaphor for facing our responsibility as a society to deal with problems, like climate change and environmental destruction, that human progress and technology have unleashed.
“Even though it’s a relationship play set in this tiny cottage with these three people, it’s really about issues in our larger world,” Boice says. “On the macro level, the play is about self-sacrifice. What will we do to take responsibility for the things we’re doing to this planet and our environment and the climate? What would you sacrifice to save the next generation? It really makes you think universally about what you might be able to do and give up and sacrifice for the greater good.”
Play by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Feb. 28-March 28. Tickets start at $25, 617-933-8600; www.speakeasystage.com
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.