The Children at the Santa Paula Theater Center

Tracy Hudak (Rose, in boots and hat), Leslie Upson (Hazel, in sweater) and John Webber (Robin) star in SPTC’s production of The Children. (Photo courtesy Jessi May Stevenson)

While watching The Children, onstage through March 12 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, one gets the sense of witnessing something important. The “searing pressure cooker” of a play by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood also happens to be immensely funny, very smart and wonderfully acted by a terrific cast.

In the wake of a local disaster, a couple of retired nuclear scientists, Hazel and Robin (Leslie Upson and John Webber), are living in an isolated cottage on the English seaside. Tracy Hudak is Rose, a former colleague, who shows up unannounced. Beneath the niceties — save for a little bloodshed, that is — there is plenty brewing including secrets, resentment and longing. (So much longing.) The thing that looms larger than anything, however, is what Rose has come to talk about. When it finally comes to light, it brings up questions of guilt, responsibility, love and survival itself.

The three actors are in top form and their connection is electric. Director Jessi May Stevenson keeps the pace brisk and the waves of passion rolling in a tragicomedy about something monumental set within four walls. But what Hazel, Robin and Rose don’t see, or prefer not to see, is that the walls of the house don’t meet. As set designer Mike Carnahan points out, “the set is coming apart at the seams,” much like the characters’ lives. There are gaping spaces where the outside world has broken through. The safe little cottage is an illusion, or perhaps the notion that we are separate from what is “out there” is the illusion.

The lighting, designed by Gary Richardson, augments the action, alternating between warm and welcoming and chilly and foreboding. Sound designer Allan Noel provides a perfect soundtrack that sets the tone before the lights go down and goes on to help color the mood throughout the play. Costume designer Barbara Pedziwiatr succeeds in helping to flesh out each character with clothes that accentuate their personalities and stations in life. The marvelous crew also includes producer Leslie Nichols, stage manager Joy Gee, assistant stage manager Carlita Mead, and Diego Moreno on tech support.

Stevenson, who is also SPTC’s artistic director and co-producer of The Children, said that when she was choosing the season, she “began with a question: Why this story, here, now, today?” This question, she added, drew her to “necessary theater that grapples with the big, messy human questions of our time.” The Children certainly fits the bill.

Kirkwood once said about her play that “hopefully what it does is create the space in a really fast-moving world to just sit in a theater and be with these characters as they struggle with things that we all struggle with.” In the end, it’s clear that we are not mere witnesses to something. We are a part of it, and that is one of the greatest things about theater. It shows us who we are, who we can be, good or bad. At its best, like The Children, theater is not about judgment. It’s about what is true. That knock at the door? It’s already here. We may be stumbling around in the dark, but as theater reminds us, we are in it together.

The Children through March 12 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 South Seventh St., Santa Paula. For more information

call 805-525-4645 or visit