There’s an internet meme making the rounds: “We have to decide what kind of world we’re going to leave for Betty White!” Some people replace the seemingly indestructible nonagenarian television pioneer with the equally indefatigable Cher. It’s not too irreverent a mindset with which to initially approach “The Children” by Lucy Kirkwood, now at Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley.
The British playwright frames her post-nuclear apocalypse existential drama with frequent doses of humor, personal intrigues and frequent foreshadowing, though, from the promotional photos, one might be forgiven for anticipating a stage version of something akin to the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.” The play, as directed by frequent Aurora contributor and 1985 Tony-nominee Barbara Damashek, presents a far more conventional facade.
Rose (Anne Darragh) arrives unannounced at the simple seaside cottage of Hazel (Julie Eccles) and Robin (James Carpenter) after decades of silence. “We thought you were dead,” Hazel blurts with a nervous giggle. It’s not a cruel comment given the cottage is set just beyond the safety barrier of a recent Fukushima-scale nuclear disaster, which followed a major earthquake and tsunami.
Kirkwood set the play in England, but nothing about the work really requires it to be location-specific. Nonetheless, Damashek imposes accents on the cast, which roll trippingly enough for Eccles and Carpenter, but frequently muddie Darragh’s delivery beyond comprehension. This is a disservice to the audience trying to follow a necessarily, at least at the outset, oblique script that requires serious attention.
Rose has an agenda, perhaps more than one, and she makes her case over the course of an Albee-esque Walpurgisnacht of secrets revealed and wounds reopened. We learn that the trio long ago worked together at the now-compromised nuclear reactor. Rose wants to mitigate some of the current and future impacts of the disaster for the sake of “the children” — of which she has none, but Robin and Hazel have four, plus grandchildren.
With little real action and real-time progression over the 100-plus minute performance, the play relies heavily on the actors to hold interest through the subtly dropped breadcrumbs — has Rose been to the cottage before? — and seemingly inconsequential small-talk (and dialects aside), they succeed.
Darragh is a coy provocateur, placing a knife’s edge under innocuous and ostensibly random questions. Carpenter is reliably solid, part protector, and part enabler in the triangle.
Eccles, however, is its apex, radiant in her earnestness, solid in her convictions. “If you’re not going to grow, don’t live,” she says more than once, and her commitment to that ideology is unshakable.
Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 1
Tickets: $35 to $70
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org