WARWICK, RI — The Gamm Theatre‘s production “The Children” examining a couple weathering the figurative and literal fallout of a nuclear disaster, is the type of play that may have you laughing one moment and gasping from shock the next.
Gamm’s first-rate production of Lucy Kirkwood’s pre-apocalyptic tale certainly spares no one from feeling strong emotions.
Candice Brown’s Hazel and Richard Donelly’s Robin are married nuclear engineers turned farmers living in a cozy cottage on an English coast.
Hazel is visited by longtime friend Rose (Trinity Rep. vet Phyllis Kay) sporting a bloody nose. Unlike Hazel, Rose has never married nor had children of her own. She has a peculiar sense of humor and has found fault with men she dated.
Almost immediately, we are shown that something is a bit off. Hazel offers Rose bottled water, noting she never drinks from the tap.
Hazel also makes references to “blackouts,” “disaster,” and an “exclusion zone.”
The cottage has no electricity, so the two women light candles.
Robin returns after spending time at a nearby farm. He is an unabashed misogynist who refers to Hazel and Rose as “fat old hags.”
Tensions rise as secrets are revealed and Rose announces her intentions to return to the “power station” to clean up the mess she, Hazel, and Robin created. Having faced the prospect of her own death, Rose is thinking of the younger generation and the quality of their lives.
Steve Kidd, a longtime Gamm staple making his directorial debut here, ratchets up the dread to nearly unbearable levels, all while keeping a tight focus on these three characters and their human flaws.
Jessica Hill Kidd’s sumptuous set design is exquisite in its detail, providing a confined space as well as a sanctuary from the doom waiting outside its walls.
Brown and Kay play off each other beautifully as the women pry loose the other’s insecurities and fears. Kay’s Rose is searching for redemption after engaging in morally questionable behavior, while Hazel is trying to submerge her guilt over her failures as a mother.
Donelly (“True West”) adeptly creates a deeply cynical man living in denial of the damage he has caused and trying vainly to escape.
“The Children” is not a diatribe about the perils of nuclear power, despite references to dead cows and contaminated water. (Kirkwood’s inspiration for this story was the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in Japan.)
Hazel, Rose, and Robin are dealing with old age and their own mortality. They all approach it in different ways, whether it’s Robin using alcohol to cope or Hazel’s penchant for doing yoga.
Robin admits he is sick of thinking about his body, calling it “wretched meat.” It’s a powerful moment because of how obsessed many of us are with maintaining our health.
When Hazel does something cruel to Rose while in the heat of an argument, it shows how deeply-seated resentment can explode at any moment.
Human beings are capable of committing acts of unspeakable cruelty as well as acts of tremendous compassion. Kirkwood reminds us of how thin the line is between both when lifetime friends come to blows.
And Kirkwood suggests that perhaps we bear some responsibility for our own futures, in addition to those of our children, grandchildren, and so on. How often do we clean up the messes we create and who will clean up the messes to come?
The Children runs through May 14 at The Gamm Theatre. 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Tickets: $55 – $65. For tickets, visit gammtheatre.org/children or call 401-723-4266.
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