The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

The Pain Ends with Death: ‘The Children’ West Coast premiere at the Aurora

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(Elizabeth Lada/Aurora Theatre Co.)

“Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn/
World serves its own needs, don’t misserve your own needs/
Speed it up a notch, speed, grunt, no, strength/
The ladder starts to clatter with fear of height, down, height/
Wire in a fire, representing seven games/
And a government for hire and a combat site”

– REM, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

One of the worst lessons a parent can teach a child is required forgiveness. Telling someone that they’re obligated to forgive, regardless of harm done, diminishes the well-being of the person wronged just so the (supposedly) contrite wrong-doer can save face. It’s one thing to teach the proper forgiveness and humility, but that’s the frequent lesson. The frequent lesson is when someone apologizes, you have to forgive them, or you’re the one with the problem.

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A punch to the nose wasn’t the reaction Rose (Anne Darragh) was expecting. (Kevin Berne/Aurora Theatre Co.)

Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children is about a trio who apologize and forgive out of perceived necessity rather than any genuine growth. The play opens with Rose (Anne Darragh) bleeding profusely from the nose, having been punched by Hazel (Julie Eccles). Hazel is apologetic, but once we learn the details of this duo’s past, one can’t help but wonder whether Hazel slugged her intentionally – and if Rose had it coming.

The setting is an unspecified British isle that’s still in the aftermath of a nuclear power plant meltdown. Rose and Hazel used to work at the plant, as did Hazel’s husband Robin (James Carpenter). When not dodging calls by their freeloading adult daughter, Robin and James attempt to entertain their old friend Rose the best they can in a house with limited power, bottled water, and the necessity to wave a Geiger counter over everything (and everyone). With only the three of them, it’s just a matter of time before they recall things they’d like to forget; and the truth behind Rose’s arrival becomes clear.

And now I’m four shows into the new year/decade with another (relatively) short play about ghosts of the past running head-on into the large shadow of imminent death. I’ll say this for Kirkwood: the British playwright certainly has a handle on the “Russian doll” approach to revelation, which serves a chamber play well. Details aren’t clumsily tossed out like wedding rice just to get the audience up to speed. No, the characters are roughly aware of what the others do or don’t know, using the opportunity to catch up as our excuse to do the same.

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Even after 30+ years of marriage, Robin (James Carpenter) and Hazel (Julie Eccles) still have their secrets. (Kevin Berne/Aurora Theatre Co.)

What’s more, the levity is used to break up genuine tension, rather than just trying to spout one-liners. Hazel making a salad only for Rose to say that she “find[s] salads terribly depressing” is both funny and the sort of rambling thing you’d say in front of a friend with whom you’re comfortable. That familiarity one another is why the characters never look over their shoulders when only two are in the scene. (All three veteran actors bring heart and humanity to their roles that make us care deeply about each revelation and interaction.) It’s an intriguing dynamic for characters who have known each other 30+ years, but have taken steps to hide details from one another.

The problem is the ultimate conclusion. It’s not so much that it’s apocalyptic or defeatist – though that certainly would be a valid argument – but the fact that it’s a conclusion reached inorganically. Rose has shown up on Hazel and Robin’s door with a purpose and a proposal. It’s easy to see why, given the curveballs life has dealt her, Rose would have that attitude. It’s less clear as to why Hazel – indisputable the most intelligent and emotionally mature of the trio (Eccles deserves no shortage of praise for her excellent performance) – would give it such serious consideration. In fact, it seems as if Kirkwood throws in a late revelation about Robin just to force Hazel’s hand. And even then, the proper ending is left ambiguous in a way that suggests Kirkwood couldn’t ultimately go through with it.

Our characters live in a world where the glass is either completely empty (the border of the irradiated zone is expanding and resources are running low) or full (Hazel’s optimism is nearly justified when her daughter calls with pleasant news), but it seems to feel that the former is more entitled than the latter without wanting the latter to fully submit.

Director Barbara Damashek certainly keeps the character work natural-but-lively as our trio run back and forth across Mikiko Uesugi’s set. The faux-wood floor almost seems to jut into the audience look as if the Aurora’s thrust stage were formed around it. The upstage area is the detailed kitchen of a mid-century house with modern all-white oven and half-fridge. Cassandra Carpenter’s subtle costuming may seem workman like at first glance, but her “red velvet” ensemble for Rose stands in contrast to Hazel and Robin’s clothes as Rose’s arrival is a disruption in their routines.

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Possible imminent death is no reason for our trio (James Carpenter, Julie Eccles, Anne Darragh) to avoid fun. (Kevin Berne/Aurora Theatre Co.)

Ray Oppenheimer’s lights and Jeff Mockus’ sounds are most apparent at the beginning, when portraying the destructive “boom” and accompanying electromagnetic pulse. But their more subtle work is apparent when Hazel recalls the blast and an irritating staticky screech is heard. It also appears when Rose makes herself a bit too comfortable around the house for Hazel’s liking. No matter how much we claim to be “over” something, it doesn’t take much to bring us right back to our previous state.

And that sort of work is what gives The Children its real power. The characters appear at the end of the world – both literally with their island setting and figuratively with the nuclear fall-out – so one would think that the “little” issues no longer have any meaning. But they do. They matter now more than ever. The conclusion of the play tries to force square pegs into round holes, which is a shame because it’s quite a thrill seeing these shapes on their own.

GRADE:                                                            C+

The Children is scheduled to run until the 1st of March on the mainstage of the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, CA.
The show runs 1 hour 45 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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