A moment from when I was in college: A group of teens in hoodies, torn jeans, fake leather jackets on a warm fall day sit on a sidewalk in Evanston not far from a busy shopping street near the lake.
As I approach where those kids are, an older woman coming from the opposite direction eyes those kids hard and says loud enough for me to hear, “It looks like the ‘60s, hanging out. Boy you have a lot to live up to.”
“Up to?” I say, not knowing what she meant but wondering what it was that that generation left us to grow up with Ronald Reagan, cuts to taxes, and cuts to welfare, and leaving to a sudden rise in homelessness and people on the street. I was also thinking about a research paper I had just done about the underground press of the 1960s, the flourishing of a counter-cultural literature and how the FBI infiltrated it by creating their own underground presses, and how most of the magazines died out, though a few became alternative newsweeklies. That, to me at that time, was what the ‘60s was—a flowering, a wilting, a fading away.
The woman looked at me like I was crazy, or maybe she was crazy, saying “Up to? Up to? Up to?” to me as she walked away. (The kids, by the way, just sat there and watched this all unfold—a silly sideshow to whatever it was they were up to that day.)
That moment came back to mind when I recently saw the Broadway production of the play “The Children” at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre in Manhattan. It features the same crew from the Royal Court production: directed by James Macdonald; and starring Francesca Annis, Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay. The play is written by Lucy Kirkwood.
The play opens on an interior, a large kitchen inside a coastal cottage. The floor is askew, slant downward from stage left (the sink) to stage right (the front door). In the cottage live a pair of retired nuclear physicists. There are in the cottage now because their real home is too close to an “exclusion zone” created in the aftermath of a nuclear reactor meltdown—where they used to work.
A former co-worker arrives at their home, and for the longest time her presence is a mystery. Is she there because of her past relationship with the man? She has no children, so why does she keep asking about theirs? And why does she know where the footstool and water glasses are kept? Has she been there before? What does she want?
This isn’t reveled until about an hour into the production, and in the meantime we get to see these three characters talk about their lives and the passage of time with humor and wit: there’s a bloody nose, and tea to drink, and a dinner to make of salad and bread, and how children can grow into unexpected people, the kind of desire that can be created by watching a person light a cigarette—there’s even a dance routine performed by all three cast members as they recall the kind of rowdy nights they had in the youth.
Eventually, we learn what the visitor wants. Though it has been some time since the meltdown, younger people are working in the power plant to try to shuttered it for good. They are doing this work despite the risk of radiation sickness, leukemia, and death. Do they think—now that they are retired and that they have lived good full lives—that they should be working at the plant instead of the young people? That they should give the young people the opportunity to live good lives, now that they’ve lived theirs? Don’t they think they have a responsibility, considering they were the ones who created the plant in the first place and were the ones who put the backup generators in the basement, where they got flooded out by a typhoon—much like what happened with the Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster in Japan.
Suddenly, here’s a baby boomer trying to take responsibility for what they’ve made of the world. To me, this seems pretty much a fantasy, considering the Baby Boomer who occupies the White House right now. Though I am sure there are a few audience members—the group I saw it with was the typical theater audience of mostly older white women, some white men, and then a smattering of young people perhaps theater students or young theater professionals with comp tickets—shared the demographic of the characters on stage and perhaps were left wondering: What responsibility do we have to the young for their world we’ve left them with?
I suppose I too am now of a generation, the Generation X, that has children and so can ask that question as well. Most parents I know think about raising children in terms of the joy their children give them and the sacrifices they need to make for them. So part of the question being asked of the characters in not just risking but also ending their lives by going back to work in the plant is the question: how much more are you willing to sacrifice for the younger generation?
This is a hard question to ask, and a hard question to take, and the play does a great job of letting each character explore how the question affects them. All the actors are great, and they give each character an emotional depth that makes seeing this play worthwhile.
Also of note: so much of culture is youth obsessed, including Broadway. So seeing three actors performing meaty roles of characters in their sixties is a treat.
The Children runs through February 4 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th Street, New York City. More information: http://thechildrenbroadway.com/