Artists Repertory Theatre’s “The Children” Is a Tale of Two Nuclear Engineers

It’s a compelling saga, not only because of Lucy Kirkwood’s writing, but because the actors inhabit their dramatic roles flawlessly.

The Children, Lucy Kirkwood’s fine 2016 play, is about what we owe ourselves, each other and the future. It’s the final onstage production of Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2021-2022 season—and it’s a dramatic, funny and surprisingly meditative note to end on (until the start of the 2022-2023 season, of course).

While The Children has been described as a climate-change play and an anti-nuclear play, Kirkwood deals with those themes deftly, using them as a lens to explore human conflict and the nature of obligation. To her credit, the play doesn’t preach: it shows.

Directed by Luan Schooler, Artists Rep’s production stars Linda Alper and Michael Mendelson as Hazel and Robin, a married couple. A nuclear family only in the literal sense, they are nuclear engineers who live in an isolated cottage in England near the heavily-contaminated site of a ruined power plant that they built, which has been destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami.

The couple is joined by Rose (Elizabeth Elias Huffman), a colleague who unexpectedly visits after a decades-long absence. Childless, self-absorbed and successful, she initially seems to be the opposite of Hazel and Robin, who have four adult kids. Yet Rose, who feels drawn to the nuclear reactor and its staff, remains troubled by unfulfilled desires.

Rose’s arrival reveals other struggles. Hazel’s incessant talk of healthy food and yoga exposes her rage against death and decay (“the slow descent into the coffin starts with two black hairs on your chin”), while Robin’s incessant activity seems designed to hide the frailties of illness.

But what does Rose’s reserve conceal? Is it merely a regret about relationships not taken? Or is there something more?

Kirkwood is clearly meditating on the many conflicts of duty inherent in familial life. Kids can be irritating disappointments, yet are still owed something by their parents. Spouses and lovers ask the unwieldy or the impossible, yet are still obliged by their significant others. Having a child may represent a commitment to the future, but what about four children? Duty, after all, demands sacrifice.

Thanks to Kirkwood’s treatment of these issues, The Children is an engaging play, not an ethics text, which is why the final conflict of duties that she depicts is as stark as it is unexpected. Also, the play’s concluding (and greatest) clash of morals echoes a historical event in a way that, thankfully, does not diminish the story’s narrative elegance.

It’s a compelling saga, not only because of Kirkwood’s writing, but because the actors inhabit their dramatic roles flawlessly. While a lesser performer might have allowed us to snicker at Hazel, for instance, Alper infuses the character with dignity by showing the depth of her relationship with Robin (this performance compares favorably with her work in Artist Rep’s 2017 production of Jordan Harrison’s science-fiction drama Marjorie Prime).

Equally impressive are Huffman—who captures Rose’s self-determination and reserve to the hilt, making her final decision all the more striking—and Mendelson, who reveals his gift for underacting, displaying sardonic humor effortlessly. He’s the perfect actor to play Robin, who enters the play with a busy flourish, then is caught in a web of obligations, tending to the upkeep of the cottage and Hazel’s beloved cows.

In short, the production is a highly successful piece of work—in terms of its staging, its performances and its exploration of Kirkwood’s themes. Despite being set in England (the use of possibly too-rapid British cadences could be a problem for some playgoers), its reflections on duty, conflict, aging and illness are, as in all great theater, universal.

SEE IT: The Children plays through May 15 at Portland Center Stage’s the Armory: Ellen Bye Studio, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-241-9807, artistsrep.org. $5-$45.