The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman is an American stage classic. It was first produced on Broadway in 1934, and was so well received by critics and the public that it ran for two years despite the fact that its main subject — homosexuality — was illegal to mention on stage at the time.
The play was banned in several cities but eventually found touring success in many; it has also been made into two films and has been performed thousands of times in community and regional theaters throughout the last half century. Recently, it received a revival in London with the help of Kiera Knightly and Elizabeth Moss.
The Children’s Hour is in Austin now through the end of the month, produced by Different Stages at the City Theater. Directed by Karen Jambon, it is a sparse production which simply and ably handles Hellman’s work.
The piece is historical for several reasons; not only is it a work of one of a rare set of female American playwrights, but it comes out of a school of theater and social activism that was unique to the States in the wake of the Great Depression (and heading into the Cold War era). At the time authors, like Hellman and her peers, were questioning the nature of truth, exploring loss and ambiguity and approaching moral and social subjects which had been taboo.
The play is set in a small rural town where two college friends, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, have founded a boarding school for young girls. One particularly difficult student tells a terrible lie about the teachers and the resulting rumors shut down the school, shattering the lives of the teachers.
We meet the students as they goof off in elocution class while the overly dramatic and self-centered teacher, Mrs. Lily Mortar, drifts in and out of an afternoon nap. Miriam Rubin plays the role of this former actress turned teacher with fittingly awkward delusion, and the schoolgirls do convincing work of capturing the emotional and intellectual immaturity of these fresh minds.
As the school day continues, we eventually encounter Mary Tilford, the story's central student. Actress Laura Ray takes on this delicious role and succeeds in creating a crafty and brutal young lady who is brilliant at hiding her hatred and lies behind innocent eyes. It is never clear why Mary is such an unhappy young girl, but she constantly verbally and physically abuses her classmates, establishing herself as a dangerous thorn in the sides of her school teachers.
Nikki Zook and Bridget Farias take on the roles of teachers Karen and Martha. Although we see them working to be kind and considerate guides in Mary’s development as a young lady, the spoiled student sees nothing but brutal and unjust authority in her teachers and sets out to destroy them. Both of these roles are intense and carry a great deal of the emotional weight of the play, and both ladies build believable characters who stayed afloat even in the most turbulent waves of melodrama unleashed at the play's end.
The cast is rounded out by Rae Petersen as the bulldog of a grandmother who too quickly acts upon the viscous rumors of a false little girl; Errich Petersen as the earnest and loyal fiancé of Karen; and Nguyen Stanton as a clear eyed and prophetic maid to the Tilford family.
This production handles the bumps and imperfections of Hellman's work well. It will make you think about how delicate our positions in life are, how susceptible our circumstance to the influence of gossip and how much power our own reactions have to shape the world in which we live.
The Children’s Hour plays Jan. 6 - 28, Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the City Theatre.