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‘The Children’ should be seen for its simple take on powerful questions

Janet Ulrich Brooks (from left), Yasen Peyankov and Ora Jones star in "The Children" at Steppenwolf. | Michael Brosilow

“The Children,” British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s deceptively simple drama, takes place in the aftermath of an incredible disaster — one in which natural and manmade circumstances collided in horrifying fashion. “A one-in-10-million-years fault sequence,” one of Kirkwood’s scientist characters calls it. But the bigger disaster is the one that’s playing out in slow motion across decades and centuries, while everyone wrings their hands and laments that it’s probably too hard to solve.

Hazel (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and her husband Robin are nuclear engineers, retired from long careers at a power plant on the coast of England. That same plant was at the center of the unlikely series of events that took place some weeks or months before the action of the play, which takes place over the course of a single evening.

As details emerge in the dialogue, we learn that an earthquake occurred somewhere off the coast. The earthquake triggered a tsunami; the flooding knocked out the power plant’s emergency generators, which were ill-advisedly located below ground level. Without backup power to cool the reactors, nuclear meltdown ensued. The confluence of acts of god and human design errors may sound outlandish, but Kirkwood didn’t have to invent it; it’s the basic outline of events in Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011.

‘The Children’

★★★★

When: Through June 9

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets: $20 – $99

Info: steppenwolf.org

Run time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with no intermission

With Hazel and Robin’s home and farm both ravaged by the flood and inside the nuclear contamination zone, the couple has set up camp in a cabin a few miles away; Hazel says it belongs to a cousin of Robin’s, who generously gave it over rent-free. It’s there that Hazel is unexpectedly visited by Rose (Ora Jones), a physicist and former co-worker at the plant whom Hazel hasn’t seen in 38 years. As the play opens, Rose is nursing a bloodied nose; startled, apparently, by Rose’s arrival, Hazel socked her one.

It’s clear as day through all the awkward small talk that there’s something more to the simmering tension between the two women. Rose asks after Hazel’s daughter, who was born around the time Rose left the plant, and is surprised to discover three more children came after. Hazel inquires about Rose’s romantic life and learns she’s remained single and happily childless. Hazel says she could use a glass of water, and Rose hops up to pour her one, displaying a curious sense of familiarity with the cabin’s kitchen.

When Robin (Yasen Peyankov) arrives home, oddly unstartled to see Rose after all these years, you may think you see what’s going on — especially after Robin uncorks some of his homemade wine and lips get looser. And while the intimations of an old romantic triangle aren’t exactly misdirection, Kirkwood is really after something much, much bigger.

All three actors in Jonathan Berry’s confident production are magnificent throughout, crafting beautifully layered performances. For all the real hints of menace (both interpersonal and environmental), Berry and his cast find plenty of humor in the piece as well.

Brooks, in an overdue Steppenwolf mainstage debut, expertly conveys Hazel’s moralistic ultra-efficiency; she’s the kind of person who wants to communicate that she’s always trying to improve herself, and doesn’t enjoy having dirty laundry in the open. Jones is a splendid foil; her Rose is a free spirit and free speaker who makes Hazel uncomfortable and, perhaps, a little jealous. Peyankov has the harder needle to thread; Robin’s actions and attitudes could tip into unlikable territory, but the actor’s charm carries the day.

Kirkwood’s one prior outing in Chicago was her Olivier Award–winning “Chimerica,” produced by TimeLine Theatre Company in 2016. That play was a sprawling, globalized look at the relationship between China and the United States; Kirkwood utilized a large cast, a three-hour running time and a script that hopped across oceans and a 25-year timespan to convey almost too many big ideas.

With “The Children,” she uses three actors, a single setting and a scene that unfolds in real time to ask equally powerful questions. To reveal the true reason for Rose’s visit would be unfair, since the playwright keeps it close to the vest for the first hour of the piece.

But what she asks of Hazel and Robin is to seriously reckon with the world they’re leaving for their children and grandchildren, and to consider whether the modern comforts we’ve come to see as entitlements are truly sustainable.

Early in the play, Hazel asserts a stringent philosophy of personal development: “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live.” Rose, in a way, challenges Hazel to make good on it.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.