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Playwright Lucy Kirkwood makes her Broadway debut with The Children
Lucy Kirkwood is about half the age of the three retired nuclear scientists who populate her Broadway drama The Children at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Yet she insists getting into their heads wasn't as complicated as you might think. "They came quite naturally," says the 33-year-old playwright. "That generation is my own family. People say as you get older, your body ages but you stay 21 in your head. I think to some extent it was an attempt to excavate the 21-year-olds inside those 60-something bodies."
Although The Children marks Kirkwood's New York debut, the London native is quite well-known across the pond. She won the 2014 Olivier Award for Best New Play for Chimerica, a three-hour epic examining the uneasy relationship between the U.S. and China; and The Children opened to strong reviews at the Royal Court Theatre a year ago and recently earned her a Best Play nomination from the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. That production has transferred stateside with its British cast and creative team intact, and it explores some intense global issues through interpersonal relationships.
After an environmental disaster sparks an accident at a nuclear power station, former employee Rose (Francesca Annis) seeks out her married ex-colleagues Robin and Hazel (Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay), and their uneasy reunion after four decades threatens to boil over. While Kirkwood drew inspiration from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan, which was caused by a tsunami, she notes that The Children focuses on people, not policy or politics. "I'd been trying for a long time to find a way to write about climate change that didn't involve polar bears and was driven by character," she says. Themes emerge gradually as the trio's intertwined pasts amplify the crisis they're facing. The conflict between mother-of-four Hazel and the childless Rose is key, along with their feelings for Robin.
Over two years Kirkwood wrote various drafts of The Children before settling on its current incarnation. At one point, Robin and Hazel's eldest daughter was a character but "that turned it into a play that I didn't really enjoy, so I took her off again," she says. But even though no one from a younger generation appears onstage, their presence is keenly felt. And, as the title implies, Kirkwood sees her mature protagonists as kids in adult bodies. "Being a child is a state of not feeling you have power," she explains, so the play "is about three people traveling toward being grown-ups in a larger sense. They take responsibility for their world." Kirkwood adds that in London, audiences of a certain age seemed to appreciate how she depicted their generation. "They were quite pleased to find representations of themselves onstage that were generous and hopefully full of depth and warmth and detail."
Despite exploring STEM subjects in The Children and her physics-themed play Mosquitoes, which just wrapped up its run at London's National Theatre, Kirkwood insists she has "a completely unscientific brain." Still, she's "fascinated" by the impact men and women of science are having on the world. A nuclear engineer came to the London rehearsals of The Children last year and delivered some sobering observations. "He said, 'Loads of the plants that were built in the '60s and '70s are falling apart,'" Kirkwood recalls. "But he was very pro-nuclear energy. I can see both sides of it. It's a clean version of energy compared to fossil fuels, but also I get frightened when I think about what it leaves us vulnerable to. I'm always interested in writing plays about things where I don't really know what I think."
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Top image: Ron Cook, Deborah Findlay, and Francesca Annis in The Children. Photos by Joan Marcus.