The Children review- Steppenwolf presents an eerie apocalyptic tale

The cast of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Chicago premiere of Lucy Kirkwood's play "The Children", directed by Jonathan Berry; photo by Michael Brosilow

 Steppenwolf Theatre Company is currently presenting the Chicago premiere of The Children by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Jonathan Berry, through June 9, 2019 in the Downstairs Theatre at 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago.

Featuring ensemble members Ora Jones as Rose and Yasen Peyankov as Robin with Janet Ulrich Brooks as Hazel, this insightful and timely play addresses scientific responsibility, apocalyptic events, and how human sexual and professional jealousies can intervene and control even the most momentous of life’s events.

The densely written script, literally jam-packed with dialogue, introduces us into the currently humdrum and previously enmeshed existence of 3 rocket scientists who gather in a drab cottage at the edge of a recent nuclear disaster zone. Hazel and Robin, long-married with 4 grown children, are eking out a life sans benefit of electricity, lacking in sufficient food and apparently devoid of sexual congress in an area of the world rocked by extreme weather and the results of a gargantuan mistake they all 3 helped create. At an unspecified point in the past, they helped design a defective power plant with its generator in a basement all too likely to become flooded.

Ora Jones and Janet Ulrick Brook in Steppenwolf’s Chicago premiere of “The Children”

After a multiple decades long separation, the couple’s former scientific colleague (and Robin’s clandestine lover) Rose has appeared on the scene, and the play opens with the 2 women circling each other and jousting verbally in the midst of the toxic fallout. Robin and Rose have never realized that Hazel has had their number all along, and as the not-so-lighthearted memories emerge, so do vicious spontaneous marital interactions.  

The tripartite encounters are prickly and challenging, but the 3 are saved from wallowing in bitter farce by a startling revelation. Rose has arrived to begin an ethically enormous mission. She is leading a group of “elder statesmen” scientists in a stunningly altruistic project of self-sacrifice, to relieve younger scientists currently cleaning up the disaster.

Yasen Peyankov and Ora Jones in “The Children”, directed by Jonathan Berry

At this point, further developments must remain shrouded lest this review become a spoiler. Suffice to say that an important shift in focus has descended, and an eerie sense of impending doom- always there from the work’s inception- deepens its descent. All of the production points as well as many of  the actions contribute to the sinister vibe; the very dance steps executed in a purported carefree return to a past partying mode are herky-jerky and weird.

The 3 actors are so compellingly skillful, and the direction so tight, that they hold our fascination long after we realize their talk is unredeemed by any lightheartedness whatsoever. Are their very personality structures tainted by the moral, psychological and chemical fallout that goes largely undefined? That is for the viewer to decide; it’s well worth the price of admission. 

Janet Ulrick Brook and Steppenwolf ensemble member Ora Jones in Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children”

The Children runs through June 9, 2019 in the Downstairs Theatre (1650 N Halsted St). Press performances are Monday, April 29, 2019 at 7pm and Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at 7:30pm; Tickets ($20-$99) are available through Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.

All photos by Michael Brosilow

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