Left to right: Catalina Maynard, Vanessa Dinning and Neil McDonald in "The Children." Photo by Daren Scott
The very first moment of Moxie Theatre’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s “The Children” is an omen of what’s to come: physicist Rose is alone onstage, bleeding from her nose as if she’s been slugged by a prizefighter.
Grim and graphic. That’s what’s coming, folks.
You’d expect a drama set in an English cottage in the aftermath of a nuclear-plant disaster to be, well, grim and graphic. And so it is for most of its melodramatic 100 minutes. The walls of the cottage occupied by Hazel (Vanessa Dinning) and Robin (Neil McDonald) seem to close in on them as they quibble and quarrel while an invisible but deadly enemy (the radiation released by the nuclear accident) lurks just beyond the “exclusion zone.”
The presence of Rose (Catalina Maynard), who has shown up out of the blue (not really as we learn much later) heightens the tension and claustrophobia. A surface-level cordiality between herself and Hazel vanishes when Robin returns home from the house he and his wife had been forced to abandon after a tsunami swept through it. (If the disaster circumstances in this 2016 play seem similar to what happened at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011, that’s no doubt intentional.)
It’s crystal clear that Robin and Rose share a past, so very soon into “The Children” we have ourselves a triangle. But the volatility and impulses of that will pale beside a startling proposal Rose makes to the other two.
“The Children,” directed by Kim Strassburger, can be depressing and certainly disturbing. Its nuclear-accident aftermath isn’t even the major reason why. These three people – Hazel, Robin and Rose – are lost on so many levels and react by lashing out -- at the fates and at each other. At least Hazel is able to retreat into the supposed mindfulness of yoga, but for Robin it’s booze and for Rose, who's stricken with more than just loss of her way of life, it’s a desperate desire to do “the right thing.”
Unnerving as Kirkwood’s script is, “The Children” is a showcase for three actors in fine form. Maynard, with impressive credits all over town but actually making her debut at Moxie, brings a haunted, anxious unpredictability to Rose. McDonald, seen this summer in New Fortune’s excellent outdoor production of “As You Like It,” sinks his teeth into the complex Robin. Dinning is best of all as Hazel. She’s as believable steeping tea one minute as she is exploding in another.
Credit Julie Lorenz’s set as well: the interior of a cottage that’s as cozy as one can be with a poisoned world just outside.
If you’re not at all ready for the enforced merriness of the coming holiday season, “The Children” is a fitting indulgence.
“The Children” runs through Dec. 4 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.