Canadian Stage and Centaur Theatre/ The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Eda Holmes, Berkeley Street Theatre, Sept. 25 to Oct. 21. Tickets available at www.canadianstage.com or 416-368-3110.
Lucy Kirkwood’s acclaimed 2016 play may be called The Children, but there are no children in it. They are talked about, they even become a focal point, but Kirkwood’s preoccupation is on the mistakes that the adults have made that are causing problems for the children of today. As collateral damage, Kirkwood explores the unsettling relationships of marriage and friendship, how the past impacts on present behaviour, and the troubling questions of loyalty and deceit, which she then weaves into a fabric that is built around the icon of future generations.
I like playwrights who make the audience work, and Kirkwood is such a one. The award-winning English wordsmith writes by implication. All information is revealed through conversation, so attention must be paid. Kirkwood fills her plays with red herrings so one is never sure exactly where she is heading, which gives her dialogue a patina of mystery. If Kirkwood has one fault, it is that she has so much fun keeping her characters (and us) twisting in the wind, that she takes her own sweet time in finally getting to the real point she is trying to make. A fair distance into the action, Hazel asks Rose: “Why are you really here?” but there is a whole lot of the play left to go until we find out the answer. Kirkwood may try our patience, but her skilful dialogue and keen character portrayals keep us occupied while she forces us to wait.
Early on we learn that an environmental catastrophe caused by an earthquake and tsunami, similar to Japan’s 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, has happened on the English coast in the not too distant past. Rose (Fiona Reid), a physicist who once worked at the generating station, has tracked down the married couple, Hazel (Laurie Paton) and Robin (Geordie Johnson), who were both nuclear engineers at the same power plant before they retired. The trio are all in their mid to late sixties. They readily admit to the poor planning that led to the cataclysm (generators situated too low to the ground, no real evacuation plan), but each has spent the subsequent years coping with the aftermath in different ways. The seemingly oversexed, never-married Rose has just returned from the United States where she lived an aimless existence. Hazel has been obsessed with clean living (“yoga and yoghurt” as Rose mockingly calls her lifestyle), while promoting her philosophy as the only existence possible in such a questionable future. For his part, Robin has repeatedly courted death by visiting the couple’s former farm in what is now the exclusion zone. He even owns his own geiger counter to check for radiation.
It is a testament to the innate talent of these three veteran actors, and accomplished director Eda Holmes, that every facial expression, every gesture, tells its own story. These seasoned performers can reveal, or suggest, or cover-up a truth with the most subtle of movement. The shifting dynamics between the three are fascinating to watch, as the actors are all past masters at building complex characters. The bulk of the play is taken up by the emotional quicksand this reunion has caused. Rose and Robin had an affair, which Hazel knows about, and much bitterness remains. All three are angry at each other for differing reasons. From the very start, Reid telegraphs to the audience that Rose is a coiled spring, almost beside herself with tension. She is nervous, and she makes us nervous as she fights to keep her profile in neutral. Paton’s Hazel is sharp as a knife and equally as cutting, yet her brilliant performance also gives hints to the vulnerabilities that lurk beneath the surface. Johnson plays Robin as someone with a wry, ironic and bemused outlook on life. He drips sarcasm and everything is a joke. In this role, however, the usually reliable Johnson does the unthinkable – he mumbles. His character may have an affected manner, but that is no excuse for sloppy diction.
The best direction is invisible, and Holmes has succeeded, par excellence, in moving her actors realistically through the space. The character portrayals speak eloquently on their own behalf. Eo Sharp’s evocative set is an old-fashioned cottage kitchen sitting on a raft-like thrust stage, the underneath of which contains detritus that the flood would have swept up in its wake. The green floor surrounding the thrust conjures up, to me, at least, the colour of contaminated water. John Gzowski has designed a suitably invasive sound score containing the incessant ebb and flow of the sea.
The Children is another of Canadian Stage’s quality productions, which bodes well for the company’s future under new artistic director Brendan Healy. Kirkwood’s play, while not perfect, is certainly provocative.