Tag Archives: Jackie Hohenstein

Kirkwood’s “The Children” Asks Hard Questions of Good, Smart, Caring People

Review: Three Bone Theatre Presents The Children

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 13, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Two retired nuclear physicists, a husband and wife both in their sixties, have taken up residence in a cozy coastal UK cottage, where they are visited without receiving prior notice by a former co-worker they haven’t seen in some 38 years, also in her sixties. These are the only characters we see in Lucy Kirkwood’s acclaimed drama, now playing at The Arts Factory in a taut Three Bone Theatre production – and I can’t say that any of the three physicists ever mentions his or her parents. Nor are there any flashback scenes in this 90-minute one-act that take us back four decades or more to when these over-the-hill atomic whizzes were young and previously together. So why exactly has Kirkwood called her dystopian drama The Children?The Cast of The Children

It’s the sort of question that rewards repeated asking as the plot proceeds and we learn more and more about the past that Hazel, Robin, and Rose have shared – and the daunting future ahead of them. There are a couple of substantial answers that gradually emerge, the subtler of these turning out to be personal and intimate. For the lives and careers of all three retirees have been shaped by past decisions to have or not to have children. More obvious, and more to the point, are the decisions that must soon be made in the wake of a disaster at the nuclear plant where all three of these physicists used to work, decisions that will impact not only their children, but also, locally and globally, the children – depending on how guilty, responsible, or obligated they feel.

We’re obviously dealing with a catastrophe on a scale equal to those at Chernobyl in 1986 and, even more pertinently with the earthquakes and tsunamis enfolded into Kirkwood’s concept, Fukushima in 2011, five years before the commissioned piece premiered in London. The cottage where Hazel and Robin are living is perilously close to the fenced-off area surrounding Ground Zero, which remains destabilized. Amid the brevity of Rose’s visit, Kirkwood manages to spread a veil of nebulosity over the extent and permanence of the damage inflicted by the catastrophe. There’s an ongoing rationing of food and electricity, but the couple’s isolation and their aversion to the Internet puts a lid on the info we get. Hazel and Robin are retired, yes. But in light of their isolation, ignorance, and apathy, we might also say – as Rose probably would – that they are resigned, not really thinking about how they might best use their remaining time.

Certainly, the cottage dwellers aren’t stressing over their culpability for the devastation that surrounds them when Rose intrudes. They would seem to be following Candide’s example at the end of Voltaire’s wicked, wicked novel, tending to their own gardens – or in Robin’s case, their fields, where he makes his daily escape before coming home to dine on Hazel’s homegrown salads. After 38 years, Hazel and Rose still have each other sized up rather well, Hazel knowing more about Rose’s attachment to her husband – and vice versa – than he would believe, and Rose knowing something about Robin’s wife that he never even suspected. As Kirkwood interweaves these personal revelations with the possible global crisis engulfing them, we began to understand how a group of nuclear physicists could have been blind for so long to the fiery red flags signaling so clearly to them that nuclear catastrophe was at hand. In their personal and professional lives, they have seriously miscalculated.The Children- Robin and Hazel

Directed by Three Bone co-founder Robin Tynes-Miller, with set design by Ryan Maloney and props by Jackie Hohenstein, this Charlotte premiere huddles the audience around the action in an intimate stadium layout like a miniaturized Circle in the Square on Broadway. The humble coziness of the setting, not at all contradicted by Davita Galloway’s costume designs, make this cottage look more rusticated than most production photos that come up on a Google search. Likewise, Lillie Ann Oden and Michael Harris have a more weathered look than the London and Broadway marrieds, as if they had aimed their portraiture toward farmers in their sixties or physicists in their seventies.

This rustic approach actually has some advantages, for Mitzi Corrigan as their visitor seems slightly younger, more active, more enlightened, and more modern than her hosts at first blush. She claims to have forewarned Hazel and Robin via email before appearing at their doorstep, and the laptop she is toting backs her up, looking out of place here in this back-to-basics abode. When it becomes apparent that Rose has been around the neighborhood for some time on her personal crusade, we cannot be surprised that this couple – steeped in stasis – has been unaware.The Children- Hazel and Rose

Another key thing that Tynes-Miller gets right, despite the longstanding hurts and grudges that will emerge among these former co-workers, is that all of them are good people, bonded together by the preventable tragedy that has broken them all. Oden has an edge to her as Hazel, dealing with the most guilts, savvy enough to be wary of Rose, yet the defensive chip on her shoulder is more like a light skillet held behind her back than a double-barrel shotgun dangling under her arm. She is polite, she is friendly, even loving, but you’ve got to coax it out of her now. As the former Don Juan of the nuclear plant, Harris mixes a shrunken amount of confident swagger into Robin and an occasional urge to dance into his prevailing disillusion, disappointment, and bitterness – with more to swallow heading his way. Beneath the crusty brooding, he’s tenderer, more considerate than his spouse, still sharp enough to be shocked and to make a quick decision.

Rose has had the most hurt to deal with over the years, yet Corrigan poured a sheen of insouciance and quiet purpose over her – until the old hurts and grudges spurted to the surface. She needed to be impressive in tamping down these emotions, with clear-eyed pragmatism and poise to succeed in her ultimate mission of persuasion. Or was it seduction that motivated her, as Hazel had good reason to suspect?The Children- Rose and Robin 1

Sadly, we cut all these people a hefty amount of slack because there is so much more than the overly hasty development of nuclear energy befouling our planet. Other industries are complicit in building a multitude of time bombs we constantly hear ticking around us, and many governments have dirty hands. Chernobyl and Fukushima have receded into the past, our gazes drawn to other filthy objects and humans. These ordinary people, for all the wrong they have done to each other, all the mess they have left for their children to clean up, are questioning whether they should continue sitting back, enjoying their retirement years, and doing absolutely nothing about it.

Maybe they’re the ones who should pitch in and help, despite the fact that no one person living in a toxic irradiated wasteland can even begin to turn the global tide. No, these fine actors are telling us as we look over their shoulders: many, many more ordinary people need to be doing the asking – and the acting.

Stirring the Pot in a Bronx Soup Kitchen

Theater review: Three Bone Theatre’s Grand Concourse

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Most people, particularly the homeless and the poor, don’t need to be told that soup kitchens are all about feeding the hungry who are beaten down – temporarily or permanently – by the harsh realities of our teeming cities. But to an unexpected degree, Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, set in one of these missions of mercy at a Bronx church, struck me as a play about soup.

Not to worry, the current Three Bone Theatre production, at Spirit Square through Saturday, occasionally delves into the question of how to best serve the poor. Yet we aren’t out there among the hungry who are gratefully lapping up their free lunches. Instead, we’re behind the scenes – in the actual kitchen of the soup kitchen – so we’re mostly involved with the providers of the meals, not the recipients.

Sister Shelley runs the kitchen, a nun who has chosen to discard the traditional costume and struggles to sustain another habit: prayer. Setting the kitchen timer on her microwave to one minute, she can’t nearly fill it with 60 seconds of earnest supplications. A new volunteer, Emma, enters in the next scene, and it’s really her time at the kitchen – first as a volunteer and then as a salaried worker – that shapes the arc of our story.

About two-thirds through the action, which clocks in at 95 minutes, I had the feeling – can I admit it was a worry? – that we were watching one of those incubator stories about a flawed, wounded, immature young person who experiences growth and healing via the subtle balms of acceptance and friendship. We’ve seen a few of these, haven’t we?

Lovely Emma turns out to be a different kind of apprentice, partly warm-hearted and enterprising but also partly toxic. The two men in this tragicomedy, Oscar and Frog, help in sharply defining the best and worst of Emma. Among her initiatives, the boldest is to expand the mission of the soup kitchen into helping the regulars get on their feet and find jobs. Appropriately, the first beneficiary of these attentions is Frog, who has long disregarded the taboos against camping out by the church and fraternizing with the kitchen folk.

Her effect isn’t so benign in her various interactions with Oscar, the maintenance/muscle guy who regularly drops by for sandwiches kept in the fridge, usually lingering to lend the women a helping hand. Emma works on Oscar’s eyes with her good looks, then on his sympathies with her big lies. Everyone around Emma is hoodwinked as she spins plausible yarns to her mother, about her mother, and about herself.

There is more complexity with Sister Shelley, who is dealing with her crisis in faith and the oncoming death of her dad. Unlike most volunteers, Emma returns for a second day, becoming a standout simply by persevering. Continuing to volunteer, Emma introduces new variations to the daily soup – a whole eggplant one day, maybe a few pinches of fennel the next. But she’s stirring the pot at a deeper level when she starts helping Frog to hop out of hopelessness. Why haven’t the sisters thought of doing that before? It starts Shelley to wondering.

It also starts to make it obvious that Schreck isn’t primarily concerned about Emma’s apprenticeship. This playwright’s eyes are trained most diligently on how all the characters are affecting one another. What’s simmering up in the Bronx, workday after workday, is a human soup of interaction and influence – and this humble little soup kitchen is a microcosm for the Grand Concourse that is humanity. It’s a volatile stew without any pat or easy endings. It keeps on boiling along.

There are plenty of energies distributed among this unpredictable foursome, and director Robin Tynes does a fine job in making sure we see how different – and how unevenly distributed – these energies are. Shawna Pledger hasn’t been this wired onstage since she made her first Charlotte splash in the title role of Sylvia four years ago at CP. Here she’s rechanneling that restless energy into Shelley, a neurotic and indecisive nun whose ultimate crucible will be forgiveness when young Emma pushes her to her limits. Pledger’s is an intense energy pent up in a pressure cooker of religious tolerance and discipline. Even when she stumbled on a line on opening night, it came out like part of Sister’s high-strung struggles.

Emma’s confusions are on a more elemental, hormonal level than Shelley’s, and Callie Richards gives her a variety of erratic, moody, and sensitive shadings. Nothing about Richards’ demeanor suggests that Emma is a temptress. Nor are Jason Estrada’s costume designs spurring her in that direction. She’s sneaky, deceptive, and her conquest of Oscar is like a raccoon invading your attic in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she’s just there.

Watching things unravel, we don’t know exactly how to analyze Emma’s ultimate violence. It’s passive-aggressive, to be sure, and its effect is irreversible, but Richards is careful not to give away how intentional it may have been. Life is often messy precisely because we encounter chaotic, messed-up people like Emma behaving irresponsibly.

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As portrayed by Nicholas Enrique Pardo, it’s easy to come away thinking of Oscar as a genial sacrificial lamb, pounced upon by both Emma and Frog. But his victimhood is more complex and unique than that, for he had trained to be a dentist in the Dominican Republic before the process of immigrating to the US effectively stripped him of his credentials. Now he holds down a day job to survive and attends a community college to improve his employment prospects. Pardo just struck me as too young to have all that mileage and dentistry in his rearview mirror – but I didn’t detect much in Schreck’s script that exposed this shortfall.

Likewise, Bill Reilly may be a wee bit young to comfortably fit the aging hippy profile sketched for Frog, but he turns in such a compelling performance as this eccentric loose cannon that all incongruities quickly cease to matter. Reilly’s entrance at the dawning of his reclamation is delightful, largely because he himself seems shocked and disoriented by his new attire. The whole outing would have been even more extraordinary if Steven Levine’s fight choreography had been more meticulous.

Notably more shabby – and less clinical – than the Playwrights Horizons’ off-Broadway production, Ryan Maloney’s set design jibes better with the way most out-of-towners think of the Bronx. This kitchen is more welcoming and, with Jackie and Peter Hohenstein’s prop designs, still richly detailed.

The carefully crafted clutter and slovenliness of the kitchen also accords with the episodic manner that Schreck relies on in telling her story. Watching the jagged sequence of scenes unfold, it seemed that the playwright may have pieced them together like journal entries, maybe shuffling the order, discarding numerous scenes, and cutting out minor characters – the mother, the head nun, and a pesky teen delinquent – along the way.

We sift through a cunningly calculated slovenliness to get at Schreck’s takeaway, with a few loose ends purposely left dangling. You won’t be as sure of what to make of Grand Concourse as the many tidier comedies and dramas you’ve seen before, but you’ll likely be more convinced of its authenticity.