A scene from "The Children"
Catalina Maynard (left), Vanessa Dinning and Neil McDonald in “The Children” at Moxie Theatre Photo by Daren Scott

When we first meet Rose (Catalina Maynard), she’s nursing a nosebleed.

Seems she snuck into the isolated seaside cottage of Hazel (Vanessa Dinning) and Robin (Neil McDonald), and surprised Hazel, who lashed out when she suspected an intruder.

Rose has definitely intruded in their life.

But it takes a long time for all the secrets, subterfuges and subliminal suggestions to unspool (it may take too long for some, though the running time is only 90 intermission-less, suspenseful minutes).

There’s a hint of Harold Pinter in this pas-de-trois. Menace is certainly lurking below the surface at all times. But there are no Pinterian pauses here.

There’s constant chatter, often of a superficial nature, masking the terror that has gripped them all.

They’re nuclear scientists who worked together nearly 40 years ago at the nearby nuclear power plant. The women haven’t seen each other in all that time. In fact, Hazel had heard that Rose was dead.

But Rose has been busy — and she has a dismal mission — though we don’t find out what it is till near the end of this dark, often funny piece.

British playwright Lucy Kirkwood took her natural/nuclear disaster details from the 2011 catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan.

Here, too, an earthquake and tsunami caused a flood at the power plant, where the cooling system was in the basement, with no escape procedure. After the Fukushima tragedy, it was the old people, retirees from the plant, who went in for the cleanup.

You might think Kirkwood is blaming Baby Boomers for all our current climate horrors (the three characters in her play are all in their 60s).

But it’s really the fault of capitalism, she’s said, which “depends on growth. It depends on us wanting more and more.”

To the playwright, the most critical line in the play is Hazel’s plaintive admission, “I’m frightened. I don’t know how to want less,” though she doesn’t seem particularly materialistic or greedy. She just wants to live a long life.

Kirkwood’s story is all about voracious, unchecked desires and appetites.

And the title?

Well, it refers to the next generation and the legacy being left to them. And it also relates to the sometimes infantile behavior of the protagonists (Robin makes his entrance on a tricycle), in their interactions and how they deal with their personal and collective culpability.

So, this post-apocalyptic tale is really all about morality — and mortality — and taking responsibility for your earlier acts and decisions, and trying to make things better, as best you can.

The play opened in London’s West End in 2016, and later transferred to Broadway, where in 2018, it was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award.

At Moxie Theatre, director Kim Strassburger has marshaled an outstanding cast and shepherded them wonderfully in Julie Lorenz’s tight, confining set, which seems to feel even more constrained as we begin to perceive the complicated, entwined histories of these three.

Hazel has been trying to reinstate some semblance of normality in her life. She’s obsessed with yoga and healthy eating (though her salad fixings may be tainted, and a Geiger counter is always at the ready to check radiation levels).

Dinning’s performance is magnificent. She makes Hazel cheerful but ever-wary, concealing what she thinks and knows behind a faux bonhomie, with teeth-gritted banter, especially with Rose.

Her husband spends his days (dangerously) tending the cows and gardens at their large former home and farm, now located in the “exclusionary zone.” McDonald gives the best, most nuanced performance I’ve seen from him. He is playful, sexual, evasive, childlike and ultimately, guilt-ridden.

Both native Brits, Dinning and McDonald easily play a couple living, in the aftermath of a nuclear cataclysm, in a kind of dreamstate, which is broken, irreparably, by Rose’s appearance in their little cottage (with which she seems to be suspiciously familiar).

Maynard plays the most enigmatic character. Rose is secretive, passive-aggressive, a single, childless, sexualized, admittedly disorganized eco-warrior who pits herself against Hazel’s fastidious Earth Mother with four offspring, one of whom, age 38, can’t seem to grow up. Maynard gives an excellent, tightly-coiled performance.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this piece (in her Director’s Note in the program, Strassburger poses some provocative questions).

Get ready to laugh and gasp … and leave plenty of time for post-show thinking and talking.

  • THE CHILDREN” runs through Dec. 4 at Moxie Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard in the Rolando area
  • Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday & Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.
  • Tickets ($40-$48) are available at 858-598-7620 or moxietheatre.com. $15 RUSH tickets are available at the box office one hour before each performance.
  • Running time: 90 min. (no intermission)
  • Note: There is no performance on Thanksgiving, Nov. 24. An ASL-interpreted performance is on Sunday, Nov. 27.
  • Covid Protocol: Proof of vaccination (and ID) required before admission to the theater. Masking is mandatory.

Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.