In 1934, when Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour was first produced, the average American did not acknowledge or watch plays written about homosexuality. The belief held that there was a strict separation between childhood and adulthood: children were not to act like adults, and adults were not to act like children.
Banned in many cities and disregarded for the Pulitzer Prize despite its quality, The Children's Hour brought into question both unspoken beliefs, exploring the possibility that homosexuals were not monsters and that children could, in fact, be as devious and secretive as adults and that adults could, in turn, be as petty and impulsive as children.
Seventy-four years later, Theatre Tulsa's intense and masterful production of Hellman's dark play is perhaps not as controversial as it once was. Certainly, the shocking notion of romantic love between two women is, well, not so shocking today. And we've all seen enough reality TV to know that there are plenty of devious children and childish adults out there. But what makes The Children's Hour as fresh and relevant today as it was in 1934 is the human reality that no good can come from secrecy and lies, that lies spun as truths can ultimately end careers and ruin lives.
At its core, the play is an exploration of what happens when adult relationships are thrown into upheaval by the gossip and lies of a spoiled child.
Mary, played by Cara Rose Cox, is the antagonist of the play, a spoiled girl who is parentless and being shipped off to boarding school by her wealthy, elderly grandmother, Mrs. Amelia Tilford (Donna Beth Ingersoll), who has contributed large sums of money to the school, built from the ground up by protagonists Miss Karen Wright (Wendi Anderson) and Miss Martha Dobie (Angie Mitchell).
We enter the play in Mrs. Mortar's (Noel Fairbrothers) Sewing and Elocution class. There are several girls in the classroom studying for exams, reciting Shakespeare, conjugating Latin and managing to comically act up at the same time.
Mrs. Lily Mortar is a former actress who thinks quite highly of herself; she is older, dresses in much too fancy attire for the all-girls school, over-enunciates what she's saying, and tells tales of her acting career that change from one telling to another. Mrs. Mortar's niece, Martha, has begrudgingly given her aunt a place teaching there.
Mary wanders into class late, claiming she has stopped to pick flowers for Mrs. Mortar, who is immediately charmed by the story. When Mary is busted for digging the flowers out of a trashcan on campus, Fairbrothers, as Mrs. Mortar, plays over-the-top mortified charmingly well.
Cox turns in a sharp performance as mean Mary. She is convincingly hateful and infuriating as the audience remains helpless to her malice and the founding schoolteachers become victims of her spite. Cox flawlessly switches between telling sickly sweet tales to the adults around her and physically abusing and threatening her classmates to get her way. Rosalie (Lisa Wilkerson), the girl Mary chooses to implicate in her deception, turns in an exceptional performance as Mary bullies her into facing a moral dilemma of her own.
Why is Mary so devious? We are led to believe her father has committed suicide, which may explain some of her behavior. We are certain that Mary wants to be anywhere but at that school. During the first act, she fakes a heart attack, displaying the lengths to which she is willing to go to get out of school. She then gets her classmates to tell her about a conversation they overheard between Miss Doby and Mrs. Mortar, in which Mrs. Mortar accuses Miss Doby of being jealous of the impending marriage between the other founding schoolteacher, Miss Wright and her fiancé Doctor Joseph Cardin (Kurt Harris). Mrs. Mortar accuses Miss Doby of being "unnatural." Subtext: Miss Doby is a lesbian.
In 1934, this was a big deal. Big enough to pull all the children out of school, put the schoolteachers out of work, and keep lives unraveling from there. (I don't want to give it all away.)
Billie Sue Thompson successfully directs the cast in such a disconcerting experience for the characters that it crosses over into audience discomfort as well--several times I heard members of the audience muttering of Mary, "What a mean girl," as she performed her venomous acts.
Although he makes only one short appearance, George Owens as The Grocery Boy commands the scene, with his overt and comical gawking of Miss. Wright and Miss. Dobie, the now completely isolated, supposed lovers.
At times the pacing between Miss Dobie and Miss Wright feels off, but this works in reflecting the awkward nature of their relationship and the unwillingness they have to discuss any feelings they may or may not have for one another.
The Children's Hour left me feeling a bit off-kilter and thinking about the truth of Sir Walter Scott's famous lines, "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Be prepared for an emotionally intense ride that ends with the pretty bow on the package completely destroyed.
The Children's Hour runs through Oct. 4 at Liddy Doenges Theatre in the Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St. You can check out more Theatre Tulsa season information at theatretulsa.org.
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