In Frank R. Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger? a king decrees guilt or innocence by setting up a public game of chance. The accused will face two doors. Behind one is a hungry tiger, behind the other, a lady well matched and ready to marry. When the princess’s suitor is brought to “trial,” she learns the lady is a rival for her lover’s affections. As planned, she tips him off as to which door he should choose. We never learn the outcome. The short story has become synonymous with unsolvable problems. Yet decisions must be made.
The Children begins with Rose’s (Francesca Annis) sudden, quickly dismissed nosebleed. Her unexpected visit to old friends Hazel (Deborah Findlay) and Robin (Ron Cook) after 38 years of absence, is awkward for reasons that become apparent in slow reveal. Hazel heard Rose became ill and died. Only the former is true. The couple fled their home farm for an extremely basic seaside cottage outside the “exclusion zone” of a local nuclear disaster. Rose has tracked them down.
Francesca Annis; Deborah Findlay
Apparently the power plant at which the three ex-physicists were employed placed its emergency generators in a basement vulnerable to flood waters. Why is irrelevant. Mirroring the 2011 tragedy in Fukushima, Japan, tsunami waves cause massive radiation seepage. Electricity is limited, water in the area unsafe, food a matter of careful choice excluding animal meat. Nosebleeds are frequent signs of radiation exposure.
Hazel tackles the situation with vigor. Her children are well outside danger. (Rose has neither a husband nor children.) She practices yoga, makes salads from vegetables grown in safe areas, and approaches their current situation as temporary. Robin goes back to the farm every day, apparently tending to cows who have survived, though dumping the milk. While she faces things, he deflects the threat with gentle, occasionally pixilated good humor. They get on with life, such as it is. Rose, assumedly in the U.S. most of the years between, is dour and secretive.
It’s clear the women remain angry at one another due to an affair Rose had with Robin a very long time ago. There are hints the last contact was more recent, but no question he loves his wife. Rose was always other. Conversation is barbed. Hazel has inadvertently opened the door to yet another threat. Complex relationships are vividly manifest affected by both past and present pressures. Subtleties abound. An exorcizing, synchronized dance routine is a startlingly credible highlight.
We’ve edged from Eco-Centric to personal relations, yet the two doors have still not been faced. This occurs when we discover why Rose has come. Hazel and Robin must each make a choice affecting not only their respective and joint futures, but conceivably that of many others.
Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay, Francesca Annis
Lucy Kirkland has penned theater for our time. Despite the lack of intermission (in vogue these days), her play rivets attention and raises questions sure to elicit lively discussion. Except for a thoroughly unnecessary passage about the vicissitudes of the cottage toilet (really?!), the piece is beautifully crafted.
Acting is terrific. Both Francesca Annis and Deborah Findlay are deep diving veterans who find nuance in unspoken thought and masked gesture. Temper and pain spark from depth. Resignation takes on vaster implication. Pointedly different physical approaches help define.
Ron Cook is simply wonderful. We observe strength beneath shenanigans, love separate from dalliance. The actor’s portrayal is sympathetic and thoroughly honest. We can almost see Robin think.
Director James Macdonald makes every move in the claustrophobic space seem natural. The players look, listen, reflect and react, often churning inside. Tension is omnipresent, its break a kind of crazed relief we feel with the characters. Macdonald has kept this multilayered play accessible and human, relegating philosophical issues to after the curtain falls. A very poorly executed slap stands outside his skill. Finale projections are ambiguous.
One presumes the look of this bleak, practical cottage (Set/Costume Design-Miriam Buerher) is meant to indicate that Hazel is too preoccupied to make her new home appealing in any way. It nonetheless emphasizes the harshness of circumstances.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay, Francesca Annis
Manhattan Theatre Club presents
The Children by Lucy Kirkwood
Directed by James Macdonald
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street