Jungle opens a play about love, life and meltdowns

Hazel, played by Linda Kelsey, center, sits on the knee of her husband Robin, played by Stephen Yoakam, right, in the Jungle Theater's production of "The Children." Dan Norman | Courtesy of Jungle Theater

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A new play opening this weekend at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis delves into questions of one generation's responsibilities to others.

"The Children" follows an unexpected reunion of three retired engineers who once worked together at a nuclear power plant. It is also a multi-layered tale about life and love.

Sitting in the underground bunker that serves as a dressing room at the Jungle, actors Linda Kelsey and Laila Robins struggled to come up with a quick synopsis of "The Children."

"It's nicely written on our brochure, " said Kelsey. "What does it say?"

It says that two retired nuclear physicists, living on the coast, have a visitor who comes with a proposition.

The retirees Hazel, played by Kelsey, and her husband Robin, played by Stephen Yoakam, haven't seen the visitor Rose, played by Robins, in almost 40 years. But they know her well, because they once worked together at the nuclear power plant not far from where Hazel and Robin now live. Director Casey Stangl explained that the plant is now a threat.

"A tsunami wave has triggered a meltdown at the nuclear power station," she said.

The immediate danger has subsided, but there's an exclusion zone around the plant. Hazel and Robin live without power for most of the day. Their food options are limited because of possible radioactive contamination, much to Robin's disgust. He's already chafing under Hazel's attempts to guide them toward healthy eating.

"Have we got any steak?" Robin asks.

"You know we haven't," Hazel replies.

"I feel like a steak. I feel like tearing flesh with my teeth," he continues.

"We have salad or crackers," Hazel offers.

"Salad, OR crackers?" Robin explodes. "You mean I have choices? A la carte! Did you hear that, Rose? The decadence coming from my wife's mouth is like the last days of Weimar Berlin in here tonight."

The night wears on and the homemade parsnip wine kicks in. Then Robins said the darker parts of the trio's shared history bubble to the surface in unexpected ways.

"Just when you think something's going to happen, something else happens, and it's really kind of surprising," she said. "When I first read it I kept going, 'Whoa! What just happened here?'"

Audience members arriving in the Jungle Theatre will see a model of a house on a spit of land hanging in mid-air before the play begins. It's the setting for Lucy Kirkwood's three-person drama "The Children" about an unexpected reunion of three scientists shortly after a disaster at a nuclear plant where all three of them once worked. Euan Kerr | MPR News

The play only lasts an hour and a half, but Yoakam said that playwright Lucy Kirkwood, who is in her mid-30s, expertly explores themes familiar to an older generation.

"Mature love, mature hate, mature jealousy, mature crisis and mature calmness at the same time — she got it all in there," he said.

The Fukushima disaster inspired Kirkwood to write "The Children." It originally opened in London's West End, and a Broadway production followed. The Jungle show is the first production since New York.

Linda Kelsey said what appears to be a simple story is anything but. "It has been a very complex puzzle to unravel and to discover, and we are making discoveries daily," she said.

The play explores the long shadow of past actions, particularly when it comes to the environment. Director Stangl said it's about responsibility to each other — and future generations.

"I think there is a portion of society right now that really believes in a completely individualistic idea of 'it's just me, and I protect me and myself and mine.' And I personally believe that is a sure road to destruction for all of us," she said.

Stangl said it's been heaven to work with this cast that shares decades of experience on stage and on screen. Every character is good and bad at different times. For Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director for the theater, that's what makes "The Children" so attractive.

"A mentor of mine always said that in a good play everyone's right. And I think that is true," she said. "This play is subtle and complex, and the characters, they are complex and we side with each of them at different points and I think that makes for a really riveting, rich story."

And while the play is about older people, Yoakam said he thinks this is a show that will attract younger audiences interested in effecting change.

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