Fort Worth — This was a tough review to write, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the show in question, Stage West’s stellar production of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children has, by this time, closed after only four performances due to precautions related to COVID-19. As Executive Producer Dana Schultes dryly noted in her curtain speech on opening night, the audience will all be part of a Stage West trivia question: what was the company’s shortest run? Kudos to Schultes and everyone at Stage West for making the difficult but necessary decision to close the show to protect not only patrons but performers and production staff. But it truly is a shame on several levels: not only is it certainly a difficult financial decision for the company, I’m sure, the fact is that regardless of other considerations, audiences are missing out on a damn fine show.
The Children, which premiered in London in 2016 before moving to Broadway in 2017 where it garnered two Tony nominations, is bookended by blood. We open on Rose (CJ Critt), standing in a seaside cottage in England (represented via a gorgeously realized set from designer Will Turbyne) blithely ignoring the blood pouring from her nose and staining her shirt. Rose, a nuclear physicist, has come to visit her colleagues, married couple Hazel (Lisa Fairchild) and Robin (Bob Hess) in the wake of a major disaster at the nuclear power station the three helped design (based, with some liberties taken of course, on the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in Japan). Rose’s bloody nose was caused by Hazel, caught unaware by Rose’s unannounced arrival. The two women circle around one another as the play progresses, with wary British politeness on Hazel’s side, while the more Americanized Rose seems to be playing a longer game as they discuss how things have changed following the horrific accident, and the changes its created in their everyday lives. Robin’s arrival seems to ignite the old jealousies and hidden passions smoldering between the three so-called friends, before the revelation of the true reason behind her visit, and a devastating request from Rose, leaves Robin (who sheds blood of his own by play’s end) and Hazel with a conundrum: what do we owe not only to our children, but to everyone’s?
Director Kara-Lynn Vaeni manages to create a sense of anticipation, almost claustrophobia, in this production, carefully staging the initial scenes between Critt and Fairchild to leave the audience with the sense of a trap waiting to spring shut. Fairchild’s Hazel is superficially warm and polite, if militantly health-conscious, but also perfectly brittle—you feel each crack in the veneer as more and more of the past comes to light, and Fairchild shows incredible control as Hazel’s seething rage begins to bubble up and finally boil over. Her performance contrasts beautifully with the more brash, ever so slightly vulgar Rose, who Critt imbues with an earthier energy, tinged with regret both personal and professional. Hess, a reliably excellent performer, turns in a jewel of a performance, turning Robin one way and another to show every facet of the character and his complex, layered relationships with the two women onstage.
While I’ve mentioned Will Turbyne’s beautifully detailed set, almost as important in setting the mood for the show is the sound design from Kellen Voss, which keeps the sound of ocean waves (ominous, in the context of the disaster that’s just occurred) omnipresent, and works in tandem with lighting designer Leann Burns to create several shattering moments of cacophony suggestive of disaster. Costume designer Yvonne Johnson puts Hess and Critt in more subdued tones appropriate to the mood of the times, while Fairchild’s Hazel is more incongruously dressed in a flowery coral dress, highlighting her disconnect from the others. And kudos to choreographer Danielle Georgiou, who creates a lovely moment of communion and camaraderie between the three old friends with a dance number they performed back in the day (who knew Hess had those kinds of moves?).
There was a surprising resonance with current events inherent to this production, remarked on by more than one audience member at intermission or on their way out—mundanity in the face of disaster, and the courage to do what’s best for the many even if it requires personal sacrifice. But more’s the pity, this review is, in the end, a bit of a taunt: even if you were inclined to see the show, you can’t. Here’s to better days ahead, for all of us and for Stage West in particular, which has been producing some of the most consistently excellent and forward-thinking productions in the region for decades now, and here’s hoping they might be able to restage this worthy production sometime in future.