Noble on its face for messages involving climate change and generational responsibility, excellent craft rises foremost as the walk-away reward of Aurora Theatre's new production.
Written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed with signature, uncanny brilliance by Barbara Damashek, The Children employs a familiar theatrical construct to reveal the play's layered, complex story in 95 uninterrupted minutes. Framed simply, Rose (Anne Darragh) has popped up uninvited after some 30-odd years to reunite with a married couple, Hazel (Julie Eccles) and Robin (James Carpenter). The three were scientists who first met while working at a nuclear plant reminiscent of Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant that in 2011 famously and disastrously released high levels of radiation after an earthquake and tsunami. Long before the question is ever asked directly onstage, we are bouncing along, drawn in by the wagon of "Why did Rose return after all these years without contact?"
An earthquake, tsunami, and cataclysmic nuclear meltdown similar to Fukushima has occurred at the plant near where the couple had continued to live. Banished due to toxic radiation levels from the beloved home in which they raised four children and the organic dairy farm they so proudly and painstakingly established after retiring as scientists, Hazel and Robin, in their late 60s, now live in a cottage on the outskirts of the contamination zone. Death and decay lurk everywhere: in the crackling Geiger counter on the counter, the couple's avoidance of milk and tap water, constant power outages, and Hazel's memories of the tsunami when a wave became a monolithic wall and "the sea was boiling milk."
Spoiler alert: From the get-go, there is obvious, bristling tension between the two women; and bubbling, sexual attraction — and history — between Rose and Robin. With the long-ago-lovers' instant resumption of lusty looks, lingering touches, and titillating banter, it's easy to assign hyper-driven libido as an explanation for Rose's self-indulgent intrusion, although also simplistic and stigmatic. She's after Hazel's guy, we assume ... until late in the play when Rose presents a more altruistic explanation and the dramatic tension that has drawn us along abates. But then resurges, as Rose uncoils what might be called "Motive B." Her visit is presumably aimed at enlisting the couple as part of a team she's building to clean up the disastrous mess left at the plant. Eventually we, along with Rose, realize there is no "B" — it's simply more selfishness, this time dressed in virtuous camouflage. Rose's need to atone, to gain absolution for obvious mistakes she made as a scientist working to develop nuclear power, supersedes caring about the couple, their children, other former colleagues, or anyone other than herself. She's not only after Hazel's guy, she's going after Hazel too.
Or perhaps that's overly cynical and critical of Rose? After all, she's not the only self-centered character. We learn late in the action that Hazel, an intensely organized woman who lives as if life is a performance she has rehearsed to perfection, intentionally "got herself knocked up," according to Rose, to "win" Robin from her competitor. Robin, meanwhile, leers at every passing woman's breasts, leaping from bed to bed while wanting to play the knightly hero in the worst man-as-protector way: He lies to Hazel, misguidedly mansplaining and "rescuing" her from grief by telling her their cows are alive and being cared for on his daily trips to the farm. Instead, radiation has killed the entire herd and secretly burying them each day is also killing him.
It's a marvel that we actually come to care about this trio of naughty doers. Which is where craft enters and deserves applause: Kirkwood for writing such sharp humor into Rose's lines and knowing that awkward, stilted half-sentences are essential to the play's compelling storytelling. Kudos to Damashek for the exquisite pacing that allows dalliances, betrayals, reprimands, and danger to unravel at just the right tempo to build suspense — even as it is always balanced by counter-measures: the couples' warmth and devotion to their children, Rose's vulnerability masked by her too-loud-too-close facade. Sound designer Jeff Mockus and lighting by Ray Oppenheimer team up as a powerful, eery presence: brownouts, sudden blackouts, crackles, wind, gushing water are used effectively throughout the production.
And then there's the stellar cast. Eccles: edgy, elegant, intellectual, and sexy. Darragh: rollicking, kickass fun, but also raw and authentic when revealing pain hidden beneath the humor. Carpenter: lecherous and liquor-loving, with a silver lining that shows he's willing to sacrifice his health and well-being for his children and Hazel. We love this motley trio because they are us: heroic in our best moments, flawed and infinitely selfish at our worst.
At the play's end, as we salute the sun's rise with Hazel and Rose, the final astonishment is that, without being hit over the head by a polemic message about climate change, we linger over the central theme. What is our responsibility when it comes to not placing ourselves first, to not consuming the planet's resources without regard for the next generation or claiming for ourselves the love that is directed to and benefits others? Do we live lives willing to make sacrifices for the greater good? Craft leaves us to make that decision ourselves.
Through Mar. 1, $35-70, Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, 510-843-4822, AuroraTheatre.org