Goethe once said, “I wish the stage were as narrow as the wire of a tightrope dancer so that no incompetent would dare step upon it.” At People’s Light, I was privileged to watch a trio of extremely talented tightrope walkers perform Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children.
Janis Dardaris (Rose), Marcia Saunders (Hazel), and Graham Smith (Robin) are longtime colleagues and friends, and it showed. Their performances featured a level of nuance, vulnerability, and risk taking that is only possible among people with a long history of shared experiences.
As Rose, Dardaris had the widest emotional range, from wacky comedy to clinical dispassion. Smith’s character, the only male in the play, was portrayed as a sentimentalist yet given freedom to express outrage in a way that is the exclusive province of white men. Saunders, as Hazel, seemed at first to be subservient, subsuming her needs and desires into the creation of a peaceful home—but her role in the story becomes more central than it first seems.
Why they're together
In the Steinbright Stage lobby, there’s an exemplary display created by dramaturg Gina Pisasale. Laying out relevant information regarding nuclear power plant accidents, the board was edifying yet not simplistic; informational but not overwhelming. However, this clarity and veracity led to a double disappointment onstage, when the scientific chain of events undergirding this drama about a devastating power-plant incident is questionable at best.
But don’t let the idea that this is a play about climate change deter you from seeing it. It is about climate change in the same way that family dramas set during Thanksgiving dinner are about Thanksgiving. The Children follows the negotiation of long-held, complex, internecine emotional bonds. These are three people who not only worked together in high-pressure situations, but who have known each other for more than 40 years.
Success in simplicity
It is fortunate that the performances are at a uniformly high level, because otherwise the piece is rather spare. The playwright’s choice to focus on the text is brought to life by Abigail Adams’s clean, crisp, understated direction, which elevates Kirkwood’s voice, a new and exciting addition to the theatrical landscape. All too often, plays about social issues tend to hit us over the head with their importance, yet The Children gives a human scale to the aftermath of a climate disaster, using wry comedy, drama, and a great affection for its characters to make its points. The piece avoids the usual protagonist/antagonist binary, instead painting a picture of three flawed yet essentially good human beings whose desires exceed their grasps.
Rooting the play’s complexity in the text allows for some lovely grace notes in other areas. For example, while the play is presented on a proscenium stage, the front of the proscenium is angled at approximately 30 degrees going left to right. Not only does this heighten the tension of the piece by reducing the downstage playing area; it brings up images of fault lines, continually reminding us of how this all began. Dennis Parichy’s lighting slowly dims over the 100 minutes of the performance, again bringing in the rhythms of the outside world. Daniel Zimmerman’s set is a realistic combination kitchen/living room. Although the bathroom and bedroom are indicated and even used by the characters, they are never shown, reminding me how tragedy can circumscribe one’s physical existence.
In a culture that is becoming ever more digitized and technological, we often dismiss realistic, character-based, single-set plays as irrelevant to our current conditions. The Children reminds us of this form’s possibilities, and the heights of artistry simplicity can achieve. I urge you to go and see what old friends can do with the work of a new, vibrant theatrical voice.
What, When, Where
The Children. By Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by Abigail Adams. Through February 9, 2020, at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA. (610) 644-3500 or peopleslight.org.
All buildings on the People’s Light campus are ADA compliant. Accessible parking spaces are available on site. Patrons can purchase wheelchair-accessible seating online or by calling the box office. Complimentary companion seats are available for patrons who require a paid personal-care attendant.