From left, Nancy Travis, Linda Purl, and Michael Butler star in the ENSEMBLE THEATRE COMPANY production of “THE CHILDREN” by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Jenny Sullivan and now playing at the New Vic Theatre in Santa Barbara. | Credit: Zach Mendez

Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, produced by Ensemble Theatre Company, is ostensibly about the fallout after an ecological disaster. More intimately, the play broaches topics like the responsibilities that come with aging and the value of life. Three characters, Rose (Linda Purl), Hazel (Nancy Travis), and Robin (Michael Butler), all retired nuclear scientists in their sixties, have a reunion of sorts after the power station they helped to build is decimated by a tidal wave, leaving the surrounding area dangerously uninhabitable. Hazel and Robin live in a cottage just outside of the exclusionary zone. Rose appears after an absence of more than a decade, bringing old drama that strains Robin and Hazel’s forced positivity in the face of the catastrophe. But Rose isn’t there to stir the pot — she comes with a proposition that they, the engineers who were responsible for creating the plant, take the place of the younger scientists who are currently working in the radioactive zone to mitigate the devastating consequences.

Ensemble’s production, directed by Jenny Sullivan, is highly engaging and firmly rooted in emotional realism. The characters’ disorderly array of interpersonal resentments, thwarted romance, and a sense of responsibility for the radioactive calamity feels grounded and purposeful. Performances by Purl, Travis, and Butler are robust and nuanced, and the characters feel well-matched — which sustains theatrical tension. There’s a heavy sense of lost control and the bittersweet relief of acceptance that permeates the single room where the action takes place. Ultimately, the play is about the messes we make — and who is responsible for cleaning them up.

The Children offers a captivating debate about sacrifice against the backdrop of a wounded planet. The show runs through April 23 at the New Vic Theatre. See


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