BWW Review: Sobering and Resonant Regional Premiere of THE CHILDREN at Jungle Theater
Under Sarah Rasmussen as Artistic Director, the 150 seat Jungle Theater in Minneapolis punches above its weight frequently, mounting finely tuned productions of important new works. They've done it again with the current show: a play for grownups called THE CHILDREN, its first production in the US after the Broadway run. Three accomplished veteran actors with Twin Cities roots, working under Casey Stangl's direction, drop us into a contemporary apocalyptic twist on a 'kitchen sink' play. Only here, environmental disaster has established a new normal where water and food are rationed, electricity is spotty, and questions of morality and mortality are immediate and intertwined.
As sobering as the subject matter is, the experience of viewing this show is neither didactic nor manipulative. Watching it feels more like the brainy challenge of a complex character-driven whodunit than it does like a lecture. Each of the three characters (all in their 60s) invented by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood (herself in her 30s) is duplicitous and quirky and sexual and smart and formidable. It's been years since they've seen each other, but it's clear that they worked together as young, ambitious nuclear engineers decades ago, and their entanglements went well beyond the professional.
At lights up we see Rose (Laila Robins) alone on stage in a modest seaside cottage interior, motionless, contending with a nosebleed. She's joined shortly by the homeowner Hazel (Linda Kelsey) offering help. The two women could not be more different in affect: Hazel is chirpy and anxious, Rose elegant, authoritative, and cool. It's clear that they are sizing each other up. By the time Hazel's husband Robin (Stephen Yoakam) appears, the electricity in the relational triangle is potent, though the cottage's wiring sparks to life only intermittently.
I can't be more specific about what Rose wants without spoilers so let me just say that as juicy and personal as this story is, it is primarily about intergenerational responsibility and guilt. What do we do about the consequences of our actions, individually and as global citizen consumers? What do we owe our children and their children? Is it possible to face our mortality squarely and act to reduce the environmental consequences of our generation's choices?
There's plenty of humor to leaven the seriousness in THE CHILDREN; even a little sweetly nostalgic line dancing! Stephen Yoakam is a life force on stage despite being aging, conflicted, and compromised in just about every way imaginable. Linda Kelsey vibrates believably between obsessive practicality, despair, and suppressed rage. Laila Robins is sleek and deadly and visionary: a guided missile in the face of impending doom. They make a terrific trio.
Playwright Kirkwood's dialogue includes stutters and overlaps and broken sentence structures and thus sounds entirely natural in the mouths of these three pros, though the actors spoke about how tough it was to memorize accurately in a post-show talkback. Each of them is good enough to make every action--even eating a simple salad of undressed Romaine lettuce--an expressive character 'tell' that is distinct from the others. Go just to see them fill in the complex humanity of these three flawed but wholly engaging people.
And enjoy too the hard work of the designers, especially the synergy among Chelsea M. Warren (sets), C. Andrew Mayer (sound), and Marcus Dilliard (lights) who craft beginning and ending moments for this play that are beautiful, cataclysmic, and original. THE CHILDREN runs through February 10 and has my strong endorsement.
Photo credit: Dan Norman