Affair adds intrigue to Belfry production The Children

ON STAGE

What: The Children
Where: The Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Sept. 19 through Oct. 13
Tickets: $18-$44 from tickets.belfry.bc.ca or 250-385-6815

This isn’t the first time real-life couple Nancy Palk and Joseph Ziegler — stars of The Children, about a pair of married nuclear scientists — have played The Belfry.

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One of the first jobs the longtime Torontonians got after graduating from the National Theatre School in Montreal was in Victoria in 1980. They were cast in a production at The Belfry by a former instructor who was directing Hugh Leonard’s play Da.

Now, 40 years after their Belfry debuts, the couple is returning for roles that mirror their real lives in some ways.

The couple, who will also celebrate their 40th anniversary on Sunday, are the centrepieces of Lucy Kirkwood’s play about Hazel and Robin, a couple who live in a remote cottage on the British coast.

“We’re playing a husband and wife who have basically been together for about a long as Joe and I have been together,” Palk said.

The main difference is the play’s extra-marital affair, which occurs between Ziegler’s character (Robin) and the character Rose played by Brenda Robins, who also happens to be one of Palk’s best friends off stage.

The play has not blurred the line between fact and fiction for the three friends. “Joe and Brenda have not actually had an affair,” Palk said with a laugh. “I can confidently say that.”

The play by British playwright Kirkwood premièred at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2016, before making the jump in 2017 to Broadway, where the production earned Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Featured Actress in a Play.

The one-act play from director Michael Shamata is told in real time, which becomes a key part of the production when the reason for the arrival of the couple’s former colleague becomes evident. Though the big-picture story is about climate change, it is told through the lens of the three friends and lovers nestled away in a remote cottage on the coast of England.

“The play is quite bedazzling because on one hand, it is about decisions that need to be made by the older generation about climate change, and what kind of world we want to leave to our children, but that is told through a love triangle,” Palk said. “[Playwright Lucy Kirkwood] is very clever in the way she has woven the two into one quite interesting piece of theatre.”

Audiences will be left with plenty to chew on, Ziegler said. “There are so many things it makes you think about that you can’t help but think about it.”

Palk and Ziegler saw a production of The Children when it opened in Toronto, and met with Mark Laidlaw, a physicist from the University of Victoria, in preparation for their roles.

Laidlaw was helpful in deciphering some of the complex dialogue and definitions used in the play, though his own interpretations of the story were good only for comic relief, Palk said with a laugh.

“We’d read a scene and then his observation would be: ‘What’s with the guy having two PhDs? Why would anybody need two PhDs?’ The actual explanation of neutrons was completely uninteresting to him. Whether I actually understood what I was saying was boring to the actual nuclear engineer.”

In addition to learning complex terminology, Palk and Ziegler also had to adopt British accents. Though the learning curve was steep, Palk said she could identify with parts of her character.

“Here we are in our 60s, and we both have children. My character talks about a choice you have to make, whether you give in to your old age, or whether you decide to keep moving. It’s not even just about the devastation of climate control, or a domestic love triangle, but it’s also about how we age.”

By the end of the production, Palk and Ziegler will have been in Victoria for two months, and being back in the city they spent time in as a young couple has given them both pause.

The two founding members of Soulpepper, Toronto’s largest not-for-profit theatre company, have acted in significant productions during their careers, from August Osage County, Angels in America and The Glass Menagerie (Palk) to Death of a Salesman and Twelve Angry Men (Ziegler), but The Children has a different feel.

With their three children now grown, the couple discovered some of the questions that are being asked in the play were stones left unturned in their lives.

“It’s great to do Hamlet, or one of those big plays, but to take a new play that was written from an entirely different viewpoint, about things I didn’t know anything about, that’s a fantastic thing to be able to work on,” Ziegler said.

“One of its major accomplishments is how human everything is. You don’t have to know about physics to appreciate this play.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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