The electricity doesn’t come on until as late as ten o’clock. This means that Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook), two retired nuclear engineers, usually eat cold meals—crackers or salad. An “exclusion zone” has been set up around their former work site, a reactor that was haphazardly built by the sea and is about to begin contaminating the water. When Rose (Francesca Annis), a woman from their past, returns home after nearly forty years, she soon disrupts the peace the couple have made with their part in all of it.
Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, in which an elder generation confronts the fallout from its youthful actions, is certainly of our time, but the action exists outside any specific time. Like, say, The Homecoming, the play is eerily and ominously untethered from those sorts of specifics. Furthermore, it interlaces the personal and the communal within its narrative: Rose and Robin have apparently been carrying on an affair for years, and there is a sense that these indiscretions are somehow linked to the larger damage they have done to the world. At one point Robin says to Hazel, “A hundred years ago you’d probably be in the ground by now,” but “because of science … here you are, alive.” Trapped in slowly atrophying bodies, we are forced to watch what we have wrought; in other times, the flu, an ear infection, even child birth would have saved us from such longevity.
Ms. Kirkwood’s dialogue is sharp, funny, and somewhat spare, preferring suggestion over exposition. Before The Children begins, Robin’s appearance has surprised Hazel and in the confusion Robin emerges with a nosebleed. When offering to clean her shirt with a “special stick” for “oil based products,” Hazel lightly observes that it works for blood, butter, and semen. Is this directed at Robin? Does Hazel know about the affair? The question remains unanswered, but the play is packed with such moments, simultaneously accumulating a shared history between these characters and leaving a great deal of the details opaque. In any case, by this point Robin needs a pill and thirty minutes to achieve an erection while Rose is on birth control to stifle her libido. There is, then, an overwhelming feeling of enervation, the same feeling one gets from reading “The Waste Land.” To paraphrase another poem of Eliot’s, this may be the way the world ends: with bodies sagging, memories tainted by guilt, and a front-row seat to our share in the destruction of our species.