The setting of Lucy Kirkwood’s taut eco-drama “The Children” is England’s east coast, but the crisis is borrowed directly from Japan’s 2011 nuclear disaster. When the tsunami is described by Hazel, the retiree who saw it and who lives just outside the contaminated “exclusion zone,” you can visualize the news footage from Fukushima.
What you’re actually looking at in Studio Theatre’s exacting production is a rustic seaside cottage that sometimes has electricity but often relies on candles, and where the water use is strictly monitored. This is the hardy environment in which a co-worker named Rose drops in on Hazel and her husband Robin after 38 years. Why? Kirkwood makes us wait to find out.
You don’t mind the delay, at least not much, partly because Kirkwood generates such an effective sense of mystery about the disaster — and also about whatever lurks underneath the polite dialogue between Rose and Hazel and makes it so prickly. You also don’t mind Kirkwood’s withholding because director David Muse’s production is one of those meticulously realistic Studio shows in which there are no false notes. The story unfolds in real time over a thoroughly gripping 90 minutes.
Kirkwood worked on a broad canvas for her “Chimerica,” a three-hour sweep of Chinese-U.S. relations viewed via an American photojournalist and his Tiananmen Square subject, also directed at Studio by Muse. Kirkwood’s “NSFW” (at Round House Theatre in 2015) was a fast-and-funny satire of tabloid magazine culture. While “The Children” finds Kirkwood still in a topical vein, this measured dread is new.
Muse’s actors take to it from the moment Rose (Naomi Jacobson) appears with a bloody nose, apparently because she so startled Hazel when she arrived that Hazel hit her. Jeanne Paulsen, as Hazel, is apologetic but also slightly put out, a combination that deepens and intensifies in Paulsen’s magnificently thorny performance. Plainly, Rose is a threat. We don’t know quite why, but Jacobson gives Rose a confidence that’s utterly radiant — which turns out to be intensely ironic.
Richard Howard blows in later as Robin, chock-full of bluster and jokes that both women read easily; it’s not much of a spoiler to say there’s a romantic triangle among the scientists here. Kirkwood’s bigger questions emerge as the characters talk about Robin and Hazel’s children (Rose has none), and as Robin reports about what’s going on at the dairy farm he and Hazel were running, but that he now visits alone in the exclusion zone. He totes a Geiger counter home; it clicks from time to time.
When Kirkwood finally gets around to her big reveal, it’s a jolt; the title makes sense, and the play forges a consideration of deeply ingrained, deeply personal social choices. In that respect it’s a lot like another theatrically smart, environmental-minded, generationally themed British drama this spring, Ella Hickson’s daring “Oil” at the Olney Theatre Center.
The pleasure of the performance lies in all the little details that accrue in the storytelling, the acting and the design — the practical reason for that healthy-looking salad Hazel tosses, for instance, and the rationale behind those deadly-looking cigarettes Rose puffs. Muse’s cast moves around Tom Kamm’s cottage set with familiar ease, and Kamm and Muse devise a substantial visual surprise to punctuate Kirkwood’s plot. The foible-riddled human scale is Kirkwood’s chief focus here, but her implications land with force.
The Children, by Lucy Kirkwood. Directed by David Muse. Costumes, Nephelie Andonyadis; lights, Miriam Nilofa Crowe; sound design, Broken Chord. About 90 minutes. Through June 2 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. $20-$97. 202-332-3300 or studiotheatre.org