The time, we’re told in the People’s Light program, is the present, and the location a cottage on the east coast of England. But we might be forgiven for wondering if the three characters in Lucy Kirkwood’s Tony-nominated The Children, their British accents notwithstanding, have somehow wandered into Malvern from 2011 Japan.
That’s how closely their situation seems to mirror the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, Kirkwood’s admitted inspiration.
Kirkwood, a rising star of the British theater, describes The Children as being “a bit about the battle between wanting more and looking at what you can actually have.” It’s this germ of an idea, about unfulfilled desires of various kinds, that unites the play’s skillfully interwoven political and personal threads.
The People’s Light production (through Feb. 9), directed by the theater’s executive artistic director, Abigail Adams, and featuring three superb veteran actors, is subtle, engrossing, and sometimes darkly humorous.
The staging, which benefits from Daniel Zimmerman’s hyperrealistic kitchen set, Dennis Parichy’s poetic lighting, and Lee Kinney’s sound design, helps paper over the script’s more questionable aspects, above all Kirkwood’s sense of generational grievance and entitlement.
A nuclear power plant accident has obliged two retired, married nuclear engineers, Hazel (Marcia Saunders) and Robin (Graham Smith), to leave their longtime home and farm. It’s consigned them to a radically simplified existence, not far away, with limited electricity and plumbing.
The adjustment, involving dinners of cold salads and leisure time for Hazel’s yoga, seems to suit them. “Retired people are like nuclear power stations,” Hazel tells their brittle, unmarried former colleague, Rose (the spectacular Janis Dardaris). “We like to live by the sea.”
That same nuclear disaster has caused Rose, who has spent years in the United States, to show up for the first time in what may be almost four decades. (Actually, it turns out, Rose has an uncanny familiarity with the cottage for a reason that Hazel gradually comes to suspect.)
Much of the interest of the play stems from Kirkwood’s — and Adams’ — delineation of the ominously shifting relationships among the three characters. Think Pinter, but more chatty and accessible.
In the course of 90 intermissionless minutes, simmering tensions will, of course, boil over. The trio will reveal a web of accumulated entanglements and resentments, culminating in a dance performance and a moral challenge.
The play’s title seems initially to refer to Robin and Hazel’s four children, as well as, more broadly, to the generation that will succeed them and inherit the mess of their world. Kirkwood has said that she also views her three protagonists, all in their 60s, as children at times.
Lest we miss the point, Robin, who lies about matters both bovine and romantic and still laments a failed, Viagra-fueled assignation with a buxom milkmaid named Fiona, rides a tricycle across the stage.
Through Feb. 9 at People’s Light Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern.
Tickets: $45 and up, with dynamic pricing.