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THEATRE REVIEW: Lucy Kirkwood’s ‘The Children’ is startling, riveting

Seldom are audiences treated to such excellent ensemble acting.

Hazel, played by Diane Prusha, a retired English physicist is off-balance, so off her usually-steady-game that as “The Children,” a brilliant, chilling play opens at Shakespeare & Company, she has just accidentally slammed her long-absent friend, Rose (Ariel Bock) in the nose, giving her a bloody nose. Rose isn’t completely calm herself. She has appeared at Hazel and her husband, Robin’s cottage on the English coast after decades of travel, mostly abroad. The trio is retirement age scientists from the nuclear power industry at a nearby plant.

It becomes apparent that there has been a disaster there–where they had worked together for years. In fact, the disaster necessitated Hazel and Robin’s move from the big house where they reared their four children, especially Lauren, their very needy and constantly telephoning 38 year old, who was the first born. This smaller place is a bit farther away from the center of nuclear fallout in the “exclusionary zone.”

Hazel can’t seem to stop talking about the disaster. She was at home in the big house when a huge tidal wave, probably caused by global climate disruption, hit the plant next door on the beach, leading to an enormous explosion. Her feelings are still raw, her descriptions are elliptical and rich with emotions she has tried unsuccessfully to submerge. Robin, it seems, goes every day to their old farm next to their old house, dangerously close to the most highly concentrated radiation. He says he is caring for their cows, which he claims are miraculously still alive.

Robin, played by Epstein makes a grand entrance on the day of Rose’s arrival after the accident. His wife, Hazel, played by Diane Prusha waves a violin in the background.

While tumbling out this fraught tale, Hazel keeps busy with mundane domestic tasks: making tea, chopping vegetables from the garden for dinner. She admits the safety of the vegetables is questionable because of radiation — vegetables and left-over crackers are all they have to eat. Every familiar object and gesture is odd and awkward, circumscribed by deprivation.

Rose takes it in with deliberate calm. We can’t help wondering why she has come to this center of destruction after all this time? Hazel remarks on Rose’s perfect figure, her beautifully ageless breasts. On the surface, the women’s catch-up conversation is witty and friendly.

Then Hazel remarks that, of course, Rose has never married or had children (so why wouldn’t she look good?). Hazel is repeatedly, awkwardly apologetic about the bloody nose she has caused Rose, while the audience slowly realizes that this wound only adds to accumulated, underlying wounds secretly known to the women. When Robin, played by Jonathan Epstein, bluffly enters after his day with the cows, the audience realizes these characters have an old, complicated history. It becomes obvious that he still loves both the women, and that the women are not as comfortable together as they originally let on.

In Act II, we are constantly shocked by small and large surprises, shocked to learn why Rose has returned, shocked by Hazel’s selfish reaction to Rose’s reason, shocked by our own responses to that reason. The characters treat us to a bit of comic relief, a goofy song and dance, invented by Hazel in their youth. The characters alternately pack and don’t pack, scrub the floor and stop, retreat upstairs and return, go to the door and hesitate to go outside. Hazel retreats to her new yoga practice to calm herself. Rose joins her. The set changes dramatically when, momentarily, the electricity snaps on.

The audience is left with an amazed impression of frightened resignation, perhaps even a touch of heroism on the parts of these accomplished, consciously complicit people. The youth of the playwright (Lucy Kirkwood is in her 30s) belies wisdom and understanding well beyond her years. Seldom are audiences treated to such excellent ensemble acting as Prusha, Bock and Epstein provide, or to directing of the accomplished, quiet surety given by James Warwick. The ending is as shocking as it is inevitable. And The Children haunts us long after we leave the theatre.


“The Children” plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, 88 Walker Street in Lenox until August 18th. Tickets may be bought on line at, by calling 413-637-3353.


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