Review: The Children's Hour by Different Stages
by Michael Meigs
One must understand Lillilan Hellman's 1934 melodrama The Children's Hour as a vision seen through a glass, darkly. So much separates us from this play, its imagined world, and Hellman's provocative portrait of middle-class morality that we risk imposing on it our own twenty-first-century sensibilities. That's inevitable, but by becoming aware of our own mindsets, perhaps we can stretch them a bit.
Two women friends have worked in collegial partnership for eight years to purchase a farm and set up a small girls' school. One of the pupils, Mary Talbot, is a psychological basket case, paranoid, aggressive and mendacious. For a year the naive school owners have regularly reprimanded Mary but have essentially done nothing about her, even though Mary's cousin Joseph is a physician, fiancé to Karen, one of the teachers.
The rest of the play is sweeping up after the mess. For Hellman this means that every single adult character at some point takes blame for the accusations, the abrupt withdrawal of the pupils, the failure of the school, and the law suit that ends in disaster and the destruction of their own futures.
It's dark and it's a downer, staged with conviction by a very capable cast and director. Hellman appears courageous in evoking the theme of "unnatural" love between women, but she plays it safe by severely punishing the woman who in the third act acknowledges to herself that yes, she does have those sorts of feelings for her friend. At the end, each of the remaining adults endures self-punishment and is left irretrievably alone.
When I read this play as a naive teenager in middle class Alabama, I hadn't the slightest understanding of the theme of homosexuality. I was appalled by Mary, the psychopathic "bad seed" who's the only significant character never punished. Even today it seems to me that this piece is really about Mary, despite the fact that Hellman abandons the character once she has used the child as the fuse to the time bomb. Mary doesn't appear at all in the third act, and after the adults' crises we hear only that her grandmother is unhappily resolved to bear Mary as her cross into her own old age.
For Hellman, Mary was the unexplained child from hell. There's no talk of psychology. Mary's cousin Dr. Joe admits in the third act that he was sent away from his post-graduate medical studies (in Vienna, of all places, home of psychoanalysis) with the advice that he was a good doctor, but not good enough. That's probably Hellman's little in-joke.
There's a lot of Lillian Hellman herself in the determined and dangerous Mary Tilford. In the first volume of her autobiography, An Unfinished Woman, the author relates some of her own hair-raising escapes as a smart, spoiled only child living half the year in New York City and half the year in New Orleans, aggressively solitary and consumed by reading. Note that the girls at the school in The Children's Hour are concealing a copy of Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin, a French romantic novel about a love triangle between an artist, his mistress and an actress -- probably the source for the allegations that Mary whispers, deeply shocking her grandmother. And by the time Lillian Hellman abandoned a husband and hooked up with Dashiell Hammett in the mid-thirties, before writing this piece, she had done some hard and fast living in the lurid publishing world of the City, making acquaintance with plenty of lesbians and Lotharios, getting pregnant and electing to have an illegal abortion that may have left her sterile.
In part, The Children's Hour is the writer's savage revenge on conventional morality. Mary is a grotesque, as is Martha's aunt Mrs. Mortar, the superannuated old actress whose hateful remarks spark Mary's lies and whose avoidance of controversy guarantees catastrophe (Miriam Rubin preens and pouts, as she is obliged to do in that role).
Other characters are vivid, believable individuals and Hellman's dialogue is vigorous and sharp, especially in the confrontations that comprise most of Acts II and III. Nikki Zook and Bridget Farias convince as best friends as their lives crumble before them; as the end approaches, Farias delivers a very difficult series of speeches with insights and confessions with an intensity and pacing that almost, almost make us believe that her character Martha undergoes revelation and reversal in the five convenient minutes before the plot turns. Errich Petersen, the only man in the piece, is stalwart and admirable in efforts to understand and defend all this femininity, only to be unjustly exiled at the end. Rae Petersen as Mrs. Tilford, Mary's grandmother, has fine stature and the chilly elegance of her convictions -- she's far from the worn and vanishing dame suggested by Hellman's text.
Particularly entertaining are the young women playing the pupils of the school. Sara Billeaux, Molly Bentley, Bethany Harbaugh and Katie Kohler are breathless and innocent as schoolgirls, as well as good sports in assuming the jobs at intermissions of changing Ann Marie Gordon's minimalist but effective set. My favorite at the school was Helen Hulka as Rosalie Wells, the unfortunate victim of Mary's bullying. Hulka shines with cherubic good will but mirrors anguish with every mean turn from Mary. The sequence that ends the inquisitions of Act II turns specifically on the victimization of sweet Rosalie. Rosalie's reactions are those of the pure in heart. The trap set for her by Mary is unforgiveable, for it's the nasty triumph of evil over everyone else on stage.
One trivial complaint: sound design by Acorn Design was annoyingly inappropriate before the opening and for the first intermission, featuring novelty numbers -- that was Fred Astaire, wasn't it? -- and jolly music hall recordings of nursery songs. They were indeed from the period but otherwise added nothing. The musing strings used during the final intermission were better suited to the overall mood and message of the piece.
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