Entertainment » Theatre

SpeakEasy's 'The Children' Is Solid, but Feels Sealed Off

by James Wilkinson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Mar 6, 2020
Paula Plum, Karen MacDonald and Tyrees Allen
Paula Plum, Karen MacDonald and Tyrees Allen  (Source:Maggie Hall Photography)

The curious case of Speakeasy's production of "The Children." I don't quite know what to do with it.

This is one of those productions that, on paper, has everything going for it. It's written by a playwright, whose work I've greatly enjoyed in the past. It has three actors who have a history of turning in some phenomenal work. It has a director who's previously shown some great flare in her choices. It has a design team that clearly knows what it's doing. The play itself has some timely relevance that engages with the present moment.

Yet, now charged with describing the show and with all of these elements seeming to speak in the play's favor, the most I can come up with is to go, "Yeah, it's a solid piece of work." I've used that phrase before when describing productions: "a solid piece of work." I typically whip it out when endorsing a particular show and trying to highlight a kind of artistic "sturdiness." All of the artistic pieces are working together and I can admire the show's construction. Here, though, I use the phrase a bit more tepidly.

I didn't dislike "The Children." Perhaps I should make that clear before going on. Speakeasy's production of Lucy Kirkwood's 2016 play has some good points to it. I think that if you go to see it, you'll enjoy it just enough that you won't regret having gone. I certainly didn't. But I also didn't find myself feeling particularly involved with the play going on in front of me, which made my post-show experience feel somewhat flat. There's something sealed off about the production that keeps us from getting too close. While watching, we run along aside of it but never touch. Then, at the end, we go our way and it goes its way. We've made the journey successfully, but shouldn't there be more?

Some might point to the play's "English-ness" to explain away my feelings of alienation (Kirkwood is a London-based playwright and the play takes place in an English coastal town with enough local references to make it specific to a particular place and time), but I don't think that's it. A few seasons back, Charlestown's Theatre on Fire presented Kirkwood's "NSFW," which was a play and a production that I did feel a great deal of involvement with. There was a sharpness to the writing and a real bite to the humor, (Kirkwood has a fantastic way of letting lines of deadpan comedy slip into her dialogue and that talent is on display in "The Children"). I left that production in a rush of excitement that only grew as I thought back on what I had seen. The same sensibility is present here, but it's been smoothed. The rough edges have been sanded down and what's left doesn't stick you in quite the same way.

How are the children? It's the first line we're going to hear in this play. The question is asked by Rose, (Karen MacDonald), who has come to see her ex-coworker Hazel (Paula Plum) and Hazel's husband Robin (Tyrees Allen). Hazel and Robin are holed up in a small summer cottage somewhere on the coast of England. Out the door you can hear the crash of waves on the nearby beach. No one is drinking the tap water, nor are they using the electricity, citing a need to conserve the power. There's a reason for all of this. Rose hasn't seen her old friends in decades, but she hasn't dropped in just for the sake of nostalgia. She has a specific request to put to them. To say more than this probably risks spoiling the play. Piecing together the slow drip drip drip of information that Kirkwood lays out makes up much of the play's experience. I'll leave it to say that all three are scientists who worked at a nearby power plant and one of the main plot points deals with a recent environmental disaster that the three bear some responsibility for. Or do they? I guess that's the question we have to answer.

Paula Plum  (Source:Maggie Hall Photography)

The design team creates a playground that boxes us in. There's a subtle hint of mystery that it's tapping into. The set design by Christina Todesco (which is gorgeous to look at) shrinks the playing space in the Roberts Studio, (which seemed a strange choice until a stage effect occurred late in the show that made me go, "Oh that's why that's like that."). The space is almost completely devoid of color, favoring a dark, ashen blue-grey on the high wall of the cottage that looms over the characters. The lighting design by Jeff Adelberg favors heavy side lighting so that the atmosphere feels ever so slightly off. The wings of the playing space are left pitch black. At certain points in the show, a character will lean out over the edge of the stage and you'll see them framed by that dark void, an apt visual for characters that are learning how little control they have over their lives. The sound design by David Remedios is what tethers us to something much more grounded. When the front door of the cottage opens, the crashing ocean waves remind us of the real world outside of these four walls.

It's a chilly atmosphere to be in and Kirkwood's sense of humor manages to be the through-line that connects all of the genres she's mixing and matching here, (kitchen sink drama, thriller, melodrama, speculative fiction, etc). Still, there's an unevenness to the work that I don't think Speakeasy's production ever gets a handle on. I don't mean "uneven" in terms of quality, but in how the narrative moves from beat to beat. During the course of the story, certain emotions flare up then fizzle out rather than flow into each other, (I'd love to say exactly which ones, but...spoilers!), which gives the play a rather patchy feel. Director Bryn Boice has a tricky job trying to balance all of these contrasting tones and some of the transitions work better than others, (the reveal of a secret aspect to two characters' past relationship feels awkward, but fair is fair, I think some of that is on the writing which goes for an obvious choice.). And in the cramped space of the cottage, it can sometimes feel like the group is struggling to find new ways to move around the space and keep the stage image interesting.

Of the three actors on stage, I think that Paula Plum as Hazel gives the most confident performance, (at least, at the showing that I saw). She seems to nestle inside the character, hitting that cozy sweet spot where the character feels lived-in. As she moves around the cottage set, she does so with the assurance to make us believe she really occupies that small space. Alongside her, both MacDonald and Allen are really solid, (there's that word again), although in the performance I saw, there was a stiffness in what they were doing that prevented me from really settling in.

So how are the children? I guess you'll have to go see in order to find out. Kirkwood ends her play on a moment that reaches for poetics as the lights go down. It comes as the result of a character that's been fighting for others to take responsibility but couldn't fess up to her own, much more low-stakes actions. Some might think we're to leave the play wondering what the characters will do. But I think that final image is a pretty good hint at what happens when the house lights come back on.

"The Children" is presented by Speakeasy Stage Company at the Roberts Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts February 28-March 28, 2020. For tickets and more information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage website.

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