Red Thread Theatre’s Production of The Children

Red Thread Theatre was formed to advance female representation and engagement in all aspects of theatre in Western New York. The company’s current production is a collaboration with the New Phoenix Theatre. The Children – on stage now at the New Phoenix Theatre to March 26 – was written by playwright Lucy Kirkwood and it begs some interesting questions about women, their work, their families, and their priorities in our increasingly complex world.

The Children was inspired by the devastation caused by a tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan in 2011. Kirkwood sets her reimagined story on the British coast and centers the action around three former co-workers and the way their lives intersect now and in the past. Husband and wife Hazel (Josephine Hogan) and Robin (Peter Palmisano) are retired from their engineer careers at the nuclear power plant. Their family home was badly damaged by the tsunami and is now vacant and silt-filled within the exclusion zone. They’ve relocated to a small cottage with a limited supply of potable water, erratic electrical service, and faulty country plumbing. When Rose, a former colleague, knocks at the door after a 38 year absence, Hazel is sufficiently surprised to bloody Rose’s nose. Oops. The stilted small talk is halting and labored:  these two superb actors make their characters’ discomfort palpable. Why is this?: that reason is smoldering beneath the surface of British reserve and apprehension. You soon realize this is more than a chance social visit. When Robin arrives after tending to their small patch of farmland, he’s more excited to visit his old pal (“Give us a squeeze,” Robin exclaimed as Hazel glowers) and there’s some obligatory exchanges about old friends and past parties. Rose is evasive about her personal life. Hazel shares some guarded stories about their children: Rose only remembers their eldest daughter Lauren, still a baby when Rose departed for America.  Still Hazel is wary: while she talks of her yoga practice and eating healthy foods, she’s obsessed about the dichotomy between personal growth and death. It’s all very awkward.

Rose has an agenda, too. Well, maybe more than one agenda. She’s rallying the retirees to return to the plant so the younger workers can safely raise their families without threat of contamination. The pretext is that the retirees have a deeper understanding of plant’s operations and history since this was the team that built it, faults and all.

The subtext is a deeper examination of immortality, social responsibility, and the generational transfer of environmental justice, with a shot of “everyone has to die of something sometime” thrown in. In short, it’s a lot to unpack in 90 minutes.

Director Robert Waterhouse does a fine job with this trio of actors, a simple yet evocative set, and some spare and effective stage effects. The final scene’s lighting was elegant: lighting designer Chris Cavanagh got it just right.  

Hogan, Dugan and Palmisano play off each other wonderfully. While the real dynamic is between Rose and Hazel, Palmisano’s Robin is the one in between, trying to break tension with homemade wine and banter, he’s quietly fanning the flames between the two women. Ultimately, their decisions about staying or leaving are quiet and almost uneventful as they forge ahead.

The Children is thought provoking for sure and is certain to spark conversation and reflection on the ride home. It’s meant to be.

The Children runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission: visit http://www.newphoenixtheatre.org. New Phoenix Theatre requires proof of vaccination and facemasks for all audience members (the printed program says “Vax and a mask, then relax” and we like that). I’m always minorly irked when smoking material is used on stage (ew) and when the printed program has spelling inconsistencies and unclear contact information.