LENOX — A retired couple has soul-searching to do and a life-or-death decision to make in Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children’’ — and the implication of this subtle, artful, altogether splendid play is that all the rest of us do, too.
The words “climate change’’ are never spoken in the superbly acted Shakespeare & Company production of “The Children,’’ directed by James Warwick. They don’t have to be.
For one thing, the catastrophe at the drama’s center is momentous enough on its own: a tsunami-caused meltdown (akin to 2011’s Fukushima disaster in Japan) of a British nuclear plant that has left survivors struggling with radiation exposure, power outages, and contaminated food.
For another, the playwright has already proven herself a master at forcing us to ponder questions of collective responsibility, not by sermonizing but by constructing a compelling big picture from snapshots of a small but vividly particularized world.
In Kirkwood’s baroquely titled “It Felt Empty When the Heart Went at First But It Is Alright Now,’’ presented in 2015 by Boston’s Theatre on Fire and Charlestown Working Theater, both the scope of sex trafficking and societal indifference toward it are made chillingly clear, even though the play mostly takes place inside one apartment and mainly consists of a monologue by a young Serbian woman forced to work as a London prostitute.
In “The Children,’’ a borrowed cottage shared by retired nuclear engineers Hazel (Diane Prusha) and Robin (Jonathan Epstein), both in their 60s, is outwardly a portrait of cozy domesticity. But there is an unsettling air of something amiss. A friend whom Hazel and Robin haven’t seen for years, Rose (Ariel Bock), also a former nuclear engineer in her 60s, has unexpectedly arrived for a visit. When the play opens, Rose is standing alone in the cottage near an overturned basket of laundry, blood running down her nose.
After Hazel materializes from another room, the conversation between the two women lurches ahead in stilted and awkward fashion, with a slightly interrogatory quality to Rose’s questions, and a guarded, nervous quality to Hazel’s responses, no matter how seemingly innocuous the query. Although an ominous atmosphere starts to build, especially when phrases like “the exclusion zone’’ start to crop up, “The Children’’ drags a bit here, frankly; the pace should be quicker in the first half of the play.
When Robin joins the two women, however, interactions move onto the emotionally charged terrain of the trio’s shared history. Eventually, Rose discloses the reason for her visit. Let’s just say it’s a big ask.
For each of the three retirees, the decision they have to make is as personal as it gets, while also encompassing broader questions of morality and ethics, scientific and otherwise. I wish politics were added to that mix in “The Children,’’ which lacks much sense of how the nuclear disaster and its aftermath are reverberating among policymakers (who presumably deserve a good chunk of blame) and the wider public.
But Kirkwood is nothing if not strategic, and when the play is as good as this one is it’s hard to argue with her choice to frame it around three people who are figuratively and almost literally trapped. That strategy extends to her title: While no children are present in “The Children,’’ the inescapable question of what one generation owes to younger generations hangs over the play and is one you’re likely to carry out of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.
Bock brings a watchful, coiled intensity to her portrayal of Rose, as well as a sense that this woman has very carefully weighed the moral scales and knows exactly who she is and what she must do. Prusha gives Hazel a quavering, half-jittery, half-angry voice and a near-wildness of demeanor while also communicating the fierce resolve and strength underlying her seeming unpredictability. Epstein adds a jolt of electricity to the production, culminating in an exceptionally powerful moment when Robin’s recollection of an abortive dalliance with a younger woman yields to an ineradicable sadness over how he has spent his life.
It has correctly been said that we are in a golden age of American playwriting, but “The Children’’ is a reminder that the same thing is happening across the pond. As in the United States, many of the most exciting British dramatists are women under age 45, such as Alice Birch (“Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.’’), Natasha Gordon (“Nine Night’’), Nina Raine (“Tribes’’), and Lucy Prebble (“Enron’’). Even in that illustrious company, it’s clear that Kirkwood, still only 35, belongs in the front rank and is likely to be an important voice for years to come.
Presented by Shakespeare & Company. At Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, through Aug. 18. Tickets $25-$65. 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin