What do we owe to the generations that follow us?
That question is certain to become more urgent as baby boomers move deeper into senior citizenship and are forced to confront posterity’s verdict on their stewardship of the planet.
And that question underlies “The Children,’’ Lucy Kirkwood’s skillfully probing, quietly shattering drama of personal culpability, second chances, and, yes, generational responsibility.
The event at the center of “The Children,’’ now at SpeakEasy Stage Company in a first-rate production directed by Bryn Boice, is a nuclear disaster. But the play’s tacit subject, the ongoing catastrophe that the playwright clearly wants us to keep in mind, is climate change. (By grim coincidence, “The Children’’ was being presented at SpeakEasy just as a very different sort of crisis, the coronavirus, has enveloped the world. Because of the announced closure of the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts due to concerns over the virus, the run of “The Children,’’ which was supposed to continue until March 28, ended abruptly Thursday, before the night’s scheduled performance.)
At no point in the play is there a direct mention of climate change. At no point, for that matter, do we see any children. But there’s a reason the first words we hear in Kirkwood’s play are: “How are the children?’’ The woman speaking those resonant words is standing in a kitchen, a stricken expression on her face, her nose covered in blood.
She is played by Karen MacDonald, who teams up in “The Children’’ with Paula Plum and Tyrees Allen for what essentially amounts to a master class in nuanced performance.
By any measure, MacDonald and Plum are two of the greatest Boston actresses of their generation. “The Children’’ gives them roles commensurate with their talents, including their shared gift for going as big or as small as any moment requires. Much the same is true of Allen, here playing a wholly different character than the embattled ex-cop he so memorably portrayed in SpeakEasy’s 2018 production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “Between Riverside and Crazy.’’
That same year, director Boice proved her skill at evoking nameless dread in her terrific Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of two one-act plays by Caryl Churchill, “Blue Kettle’’ and “Here We Go.’’ In “The Children,’’ dread has a name and a cause, but Boice again conjures the eerie, dislocating atmosphere of a world that has ceased to make sense.
"The Children’’ revolves around three retired British physicists in their 60s: married couple Hazel (Plum) and Robin (Allen), and their former colleague Rose (MacDonald). In the contaminated aftermath of a meltdown at the nuclear power plant where all three of them formerly worked, Hazel and Robin are surprised by a visit to their cottage from Rose, whom they have not seen in nearly four decades.
They are even more taken aback by the mission that has brought Rose to their door — one that presents them with a moral choice to make, wrapped within a dilemma that is quite literally life or death.
Even before that dilemma is crystallized, the mood in the cottage is tense, especially in the halting exchanges between Hazel and Rose. An aura of personal history and unfinished business hangs in the room, try though Robin does to dispel it with displays of jollity. All three cast members do a superb job capturing the intricate, start-and-stop rhythms of Kirkwood’s dialogue.
She is a British dramatist whose “It Felt Empty When the Heart Went at First But It Is Alright Now’' delivered a haunting portrait of a young Serbian woman forced to work as a London prostitute. Presented six years ago at Charlestown Working Theater, "It Felt Empty . . .'' put an individual face on a crime too often discussed in the abstract: sex trafficking. For all that play’s strengths, however, Kirkwood tended to belabor her points well after they had been sufficiently made.
But there’s not a wasted word in “The Children.’’ A marvel of lucid construction, it doesn’t resort to message-mongering but instead stays rooted to the three scientists: their personalities, their complicated relationships, their divergent views of both the past and the future.
Allen movingly takes us past the surface of Robin’s devil-may-care façade to the grieving man beneath, while Plum artfully and powerfully shows us, eventually, exactly what the emotional cost has been to Hazel of maintaining an air of steely self-control as long and thoroughly as she has.
And MacDonald? It was only four weeks ago that this endlessly versatile actress wrapped up her serio-comic performance in Lyric Stage’s “The Cake’’ as a fundamentalist Southern baker who is torn when she is asked to bake a cake for the same-sex wedding of her deceased best friend’s daughter. Now, in “The Children,’’ MacDonald creates a psychologically complex Rose, equally driven by the need to look back and the need to move forward
“We built it, didn’t we,’’ says Rose vehemently at one point to the other two, speaking of the nuclear plant in words that might as well refer to the world her generation constructed. “Or helped to. We’re responsible.’’
Play by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Bryn Boice. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company.