Appetites and Destruction: Lucy Kirkwood's The Children

Hazel wasn’t expecting a visitor—there’s no one for miles, not since the disaster. And especially not Rose. Rose whom she hasn’t seen in 38 years. Rose whom she’d heard had died. So when Rose shows up very much alive, Hazel accidentally bloodies her long-gone colleague’s nose. And when Rose seems unnaturally familiar with the vacation cottage that Hazel and her husband Robin are staying at until the government clears them to return to their proper house, well—that’s not the oddest thing that’s happened in the last few weeks.

Lucy Kirkwood’s tense and disquieting play The Children is built on small details out of place, all pointing to a larger world out of order: a bloody nose, mention of their farmhouse in the “exclusion zone,” a hidden footstool a little too handy to someone who’s never been here before…

Hazel and her husband Robin are themselves details out of place, living in this small cottage on the British coast in the aftermath of a natural disaster that’s led to the meltdown of a nuclear reactor at a nearby power plant. Hazel and Robin are retired nuclear physicists, having helped to open the plant in the 1970s alongside Rose, a former colleague and romantic rival. And now, waiting for the government to clear their return to the farmhouse, Hazel works to maintain a sense of normalcy while Robin visits to their property to tend to their cows, Geiger counter in hand to track the farm’s radiation levels.

Kirkwood had wanted to write a play about climate change for a few years, but wasn’t sure how to approach the subject. The facts about the impact human activities have had and continue to have on the planet are well-known. “What is interesting to me is this: if we know the facts, why are we failing so catastrophically to change our behaviors?” Kirkwood asks. “I think it’s because those changes are enormous and frightening and demand that we give up things we have all come to feel we are entitled to.”

Kirkwood took inspiration from the events that led to the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant—a tsunami flooded the plant, breached the sea wall, and triggered the meltdown of three of its six core reactors—as well as the story of the retired work-force that went in to clean up the plant. From there she fashioned a profoundly predicable disaster (“We built a nuclear reactor next to the sea then put the emergency generators in the basement!” says one character), as a way to investigate the all-too-human impulse to downplay the potential larger impact of their choices.

To set up this conflict between what you want (“life or sex or children or food or electricity,” as Kirkwood characterizes it) and what you actually need, Kirkwood turns to a sturdy and time-honored structure: the romantic triangle. The nature of Rose’s relationship with Robin 40 years ago and over the intervening decades is eventually teased out, with the play’s romantic triangle operating as both plot engine and metaphor for other unconsidered consequences of desire—particularly in an economic system that depends on creating appetites instead of satisfying them. “Capitalism has instilled a set of desires in us that are very difficult to de-program,” Kirkwood says. “Capitalism depends on growth. Our entire economic system depends on us wanting more and more, on boundless desire—and if we continue to pursue those desires they will destroy us.” In a world of Geiger counters and exclusion zones, this destruction is literal.

After the epic Chimerica (seen at Studio in 2015), with its 27 locations, 40 characters, and 23-year span of play, Kirkwood shrinks her canvas with The Children, but not her thematic ambition. The Children has one location, three characters, and plays out in real time over the 90-minute duration of the play. It was a theatrical impulse born of a political one, the desire to slow people’s thinking down, bring them into real reckoning with the true implications of their decisions. “That’s what drama is,” says Kirkwood, “looking at human beings under pressure trying to do things that they find difficult.”

In the end, these characters’ difficulties come down to agency in a culture of learned powerlessness, a dynamic that Kirkwood gestures to in the title of her play. The play’s eponymous children may refer to the two daughters and two sons of Hazel and Robin or to an abstract sense of the rising generation and the poisoned legacy their parents leave them. To Kirkwood, it refers at least in part to the sexagenarians of her cast: “The state of a child is to feel you can’t affect your world, and the whole play is a conversation about how we can affect our world.” To the charge that this is a play about a younger generation condemning its elders, Kirkwood confesses, “I believe that if I had been 20 in 1970 I would have made similar choices to the characters in the play.” Who among us would not choose our comfort? Who among us can distinguish between our necessities and luxuries: 24/7 electricity, year-round air conditioning, any fruit in any season, and all the meat we’re interested in eating? But, Kirkwood asks, what will happen if we don’t bring our appetites into scale?

Adrien-Alice Hansel