As irregular weather and natural disasters become evermore prevalent worldwide, so, it seems, does environmental dystopian fiction. And while many of these stories are preoccupied with doomsday drama, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children is not one of them; rather than focusing on grisly details and destruction, the script delves instead into how humanity both changes and remains the same in the face of devastation--how we desperately hold on to connections and relationships despite the knowledge of pending doom. It’s a deeply moving and thought-provoking script, one that propels its viewers deep into the recesses of what ifs, but Steppenwolf’s production lacks a certain intensity to make the earth-shattering impact forecasted in Kirkwood’s text.
Part of this disconnect stems from the physical distance created by the set’s design. Chelsea M. Warren’s seaside cottage, the play’s sole setting, is elevated above the audience with a stony expanse that further cuts us off from the characters onstage. While this home certainly would be practical for our characters, who have been plagued by flooding, among other things, the physical space between performers and audience makes it difficult to invest fully in the story.
The talented cast attempts to make up this divide, with the consistently marvelous Janet Ulrich Brooks (Hazel) and Ora Jones (Rose) squaring off against each other. Hazel is the tightly wound, organized homemaker, wife, mother, and (now retired) career woman that Rose couldn’t and, in fact, has never wanted to be, and tensions between these two disparate personalities flare up when Rose, a former colleague of both Hazel and her husband (Robin, played by Yasen Peyankov), shows up for an unexpected visit. Over the course of an evening, Rose’s purpose slowly unfolds, and the three must grapple with a difficult decision, one which will alter the course of many lives.
All three performers have tremendously affecting moments, including a heart-warming dance, but seasoned director Jonathan Berry’s decisions overall seem almost too subtle, too tame. Part of the script’s success is in its refusal to dive deeply into the ecological turmoil, but coupling such subtlety with more creates a sterile energy; it’s a well-performed, well-designed production, but it needs a little more life.
Breathing life into a play about humanity’s impending doom may sound contradictory, but it’s at the heart of Kirkwood’s story. How does life continue as the world crumbles? How does destruction affect our relationships and our perceptions of one another? Steppenwolf’s production of The Children presents these ideas and themes but doesn’t quite capture their weight. (Emily Schmidt)
The Children continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through June 9. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.