So I’m catching up with my friend Bill, and he asks me what I’ve seen lately.
“Oh, I just saw The Children, the new play at the Fountain Theatre.”
“What’s it about?”
“It takes place in England near the coast, and it’s about a Fukushima-type incident—you know, earthquake, tsunami, destruction of a nuclear power plant, death and radiation for miles around, and then who’s going to clean it up.”
“Why don’t they make the owners and stockholders clean it up?” he suggests. “They’re the ones who profited off it for years, didn’t they?”
Unfortunately, according to the laws of Spoiler Alert Nation, I am prohibited from saying much more about the plot, but Bill put his finger precisely on the class nature of power in capitalist countries—and I mean, like, political power and energy power. He knows as well as I do—and our readers, of course, do as well—that London City and Wall Street investors are not about to don hazmat suits, enter those “dark Satanic mills” (as the well-known anthem “Jerusalem” by William Blake described the workplaces of his day) and rehabilitate “England’s green and pleasant land.”
So what is to be done?
These same issues arose a decade ago at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan. “I want to do my part so that a negative legacy will not remain for future generations,” the then-73-year-old Yusuteru Yamada, a retired steel industry engineer, said.
More recently, here at home in the U.S., when COVID-19 started scything its course through nursing homes, Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas expressed his view that he personally, and others of grandparent age, would happily risk their own lives so the country could “get back to work” (and help to make President Trump’s efforts to restore the economy look good). “Those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” he told Fox News.
It’s not only, and certainly not ultimately, a question of age when it comes to whose lives the social order wants to throw into the incinerator. Those forces in a society that are pushing to lessen the proportion of the population occupied by (take your pick) “senior citizens,” Native Americans, LBGTQ people, immigrants, Blacks, persons with disabilities, the poor, the unemployed and unemployable, et al., are always at the ready whenever disaster strikes to put their schemes into practice. The way the American healthcare system is set up—not to mention educational, employment, housing, and environmental considerations—it does its best to make sure those groups, in particular, wind up with the most deadly diseases and the shortest life expectancies.
And if we’re talking about the moral obligation of one generation to another, can we also include those two-tier labor contracts management loves, where the new hires get lower pay, worse healthcare coverage, and no pension? And can we talk about the impoverishment of our public school system, and polluted air and water? And forcing a 15-year-old girl who’s been raped and impregnated by her blood relation to bear that unwanted child?
And forgive me for being an obstinate mutt with a rope toy, but how grownup is it for corporations or the military to soil air, waterways, and earth with their foul chemical excrement, and then plead it’s too big a problem for them to solve, so in steps the federal government (that would be our taxpayer money) to clean up the mess—if they ever get around to it.
All these issues are not the basic point of Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Children, but I won’t be told they’re extraneous either. Morals are rarely so absolute: Context for this cosmos-in-a-kitchen drama (yes, it does take place in a kitchen) is everything.
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The entire catastrophic world that is now the semi-deserted East England coast is experienced through the eyes of the play’s three characters in their 60s. Robin (Ron Bottitta) and Hazel (Lily Knight) are a longtime married couple, both retired nuclear engineers who had helped launch the power plant decades before. Now, after the disaster, they’ve abandoned their home in the contaminated zone and have retreated ten miles away to a modest, remote family-owned cottage with fussy plumbing and uncertain electricity. Their sedate lives of looking after their four children and the grandchildren, but especially the problematic eldest daughter, the unseen Lauren, is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Rose (Elizabeth Elias Huffman), whom they knew years before as a fellow scientist at the plant. For the last 38 years, she’s been in the U.S.
Why has she come back? Hazel’s and Robin’s curious minds want to know. From the opening scene between the two women, we note a palpable frisson in their taut badinage as the play languorously spools out the characters’ backstories. There are old affairs to settle and many questions, dealt with masterfully by the playwright in an ever so slowly tightening coil of suspense and revelation that does not slight the ironic gallows sensibility of standing at the abyss of a grim future. “If you’re not going to grow,” says Hazel, “don’t live.”
One of the most poetic touches in the play is the historical evocation of a town not far from this place that fell into the sea at some point during the Middle Ages when the earth cracked open. Some locals to this day still believe they hear the old church bells tolling when it’s time to come in for prayer. This story assumes a larger presence as the play progresses.
“What I love about the play,” says director Simon Levy, “is that it tackles these enormously important contemporary issues about our responsibility to the planet, to each other, to future generations, and grounds them in funny, complex, identifiable characters grappling with a moral dilemma that, quite frankly, all of us are confronting, right now, in real time.”
The Children premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2016, then transferred to the Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway the following year, where it earned a 2018 Tony nomination. In 2019, The Guardian placed The Children on its list of “greatest theatrical works since 2000.” London’s The Independent called millennial playwright Kirkwood “the most rewarding dramatist of her generation.” The Fountain production is its Los Angeles premiere.
The very title of the play invites interrogation. We are led to think that the concern is all for the next generation so they may raise their families in safety. (And aren’t so many political frauds devilishly framed as concern “for the children?”) Yet as the trio of characters revert to playful versions of their earlier selves as they renew their connection (there’s a tricycle involved as well as some retro disco-style line dancing), it’s clear that their own behavior and decisions have not always been especially mature. It might even help the couple’s issue-prone daughter Lauren if they didn’t indulge her so much like a frail, spoiled child, trying to solve all her life problems for her. Anyway, what kind of “child’s play” with nature became reality when the “adults in the room” invented nuclear power to begin with—for both military and civilian application? Again, these are not so much generational questions but more specifically social policy issues that if the powers-that-be once flubbed, we survivors of all ages now have the opportunity, if we care to seize it, to correct, and I wish us all good luck with that.
“The nuclear disaster the town is struggling to survive could be anything—it could be COVID or climate change,” says Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs. “The moral dilemma is: what world are we leaving to our children?”
Incidentally (not giving away any critical plot point here), Hazel wonders out loud why on an island nation like Britain, they couldn’t harvest ocean wave power for energy? Now that’s thinking like an adult.
The meticulously conceived scenic design is by Andrew G. Hammer. The dialect coach is Nike Doukas, which I mention specifically because I often find the faithful imitation of dialect too extreme—we’ve come to nearly the end of the play before my ears successfully adapt. I believe many other theatergoers have the same experience. But this is not the case here: Doukas keeps the language authentic without being alienating.
In sum, a highly successful production of a gorgeous play-as long as you keep the larger context firmly in mind.
Performances of The Children take place through Jan 23 on Fri., Sat., and Mon. at 8 p.m., and Sun. at 2 p.m. (with a holiday break Dec. 20 through Jan. 7). Tickets range from $25–$45; Pay-What-You-Want seating is available every Mon. night in addition to regular seating (subject to availability). The play runs 105 minutes without intermission.
The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5, or find street parking. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing will be required of all patrons. All current CDC and local guidelines regarding seating and masks will be followed at each performance. The Children is limited to ages 12+.
Eric A. Gordon