UNCW theatre wraps up their season with a powerful production of Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour.” Directed by Robin Post, the show deftly incorporates the twinges of modern technology (texting, Facebook, cellphones, etc.) with a script that has been in a state of evolution since its premiere in 1934.
Set at an all-girls boarding school, run by Martha Dobie (Danielle Houston) and Karen Wright (Julia Ormond), “The Children’s Hour” explores the harm of gossip, scandal and accusation. Dobie’s untalented, delusional and selfish aunt, Lily Mortar (Meagan Bellamy), teaches elocution at the school. She is one of two thorns in the sides of Martha and Karen. The other is the lying, scheming and disobedient student, Mary Tilford (Allison Grady). Now that the school is on its feet financially (after years of hard work to make it so), Martha offers to pension off her aunt to live comfortably elsewhere. Family dynamics have complicated the world over, and the unhappy Martha who has borne the burden of the meddlesome aunt would like her freedom. But Lily derives just as much pleasure from tormenting Martha as she does from recalling her glory days on the stage. She’s not going anywhere.
Houston turned in an excellent and believable Martha, who struggles with years of enduring this meddlesome relative and wishing to be rid of her—but unable to escape the burden of family obligation. She is trapped like Prometheus was chained to a rock, and we can see it on her face and in her body. That’s exactly where Mortar wants her—and if she doesn’t squirm enough at first, Mortar applies pressure to different buttons to see which one will get her to break. It’s not an unheard of scenario; many probably have seen or experienced it at some point for themselves. What makes the exchange fascinating is countering Bellamy’s studied dramatics, Houston presents a woman worn down and out with exasperation.
Meanwhile, tending to Mary is the cool, calm, collected Karen Wright; examining Mary is the local doctor, who happens to be her cousin, Joe, and Karen’s fiancé (Tony Choufani). Mary is a bully, and Grady seems to love swinging between kissing up to adults, having tantrums and tormenting her fellow students. She certainly succeeds in leaving a trail of misery behind her. Even her roommates, Peggy (Wesleigh Neville) and Evelyn (Meredith Stanton), are terrified of her.
Post has created an interesting visual by casting the physically smallest person on stage, Allison Grady, as the bully. Though little, she is fierce. Ms. Wright punishes Mary for skipping class and lying. Mary runs away from school to her grandmother’s house where she has lived life as the spoiled object of adoration. Mrs. Tilford (Mackenzie Kirkman) tumbles, hook, line and sinker, for the accusation Mary makes against Karen and Martha: that they are carrying on a lesbian love affair and she has seen them in the act.
And, so, the show blossoms on two fronts: On the one hand, it is an exploration of how homosexuality is perceived in society. Placing this accusation squarely in a residential school, Hellman reflects the arguments Anita Bryant would make so famous about protecting children from homosexuals teaching in the ‘70s with the “Save Our Children” campaign. On the other hand, the script explores the destructive power of rumor. Post utilizes projections of texts during intermission to show how rumors spread and people react to them. These two hardworking women literally see everything they have achieved evaporate overnight. Karen’s marriage is jeopardized. Everywhere they turn is righteous judgment—with no way to defend themselves against something that has spawned an uncontrollable monster.
Mrs. Tilford acts instantly with no fact-checking, based on information that is at best, hearsay. She then passes it on and on and on.
Really, how is this any different from Facebook? It is basically how gossip has functioned and flourished since the beginning of human civilization. But how is it, in more than 2,000 years after Christ, we haven’t found the ability to take a deep breath and pause before we act upon sensationalism. Does the juicy tidbit of gossip actually make sense when held up to the rubric of information we know about the parties involved? Do they live lives of substance and honor? On a larger scale, can the news story actually be real when pressed into the frame of knowledge that has brought the world to this point in history? Post focuses on the struggles surrounding gay rights in the 20th century with the second half of the show, and the message she communicates resonates. She accomplishes something really beautiful by updating an 80-year-old script into a modern setting without tampering with the author’s intent.
The cast is wonderful—really wonderful! It is incredible to watch a group so young oscillate between certainty and doubt—each with different battles, yet all trapped, ever moving on that continuum. Houston, Ormond and Choufani’s performances truly stand out. With her blonde hair and big eyes, Ormond is a natural for an ingénue. But this role turns that idea on its head, and so does she.
Choufani continues to surprise and mystify onstage. His gift for comedic timing is obvious, but for this role, he has to be a reasoned, quiet man of science and medicine who sees his life pushed over the brink to discover everyone, every place and every thing he thought he knew was just a façade, waiting to be broken. The trio take this journey into darkness with all the reticence of the damned. We follow with fear for them.
The subject matter of “The Children’s Hour” is distressing, and not as easy to sell as a light-hearted comedy. Unfortunately, it is as relevant today as it was in 1934. (perhaps more so in light of the ongoing issues around NC’s HB2). Robin Post’s vision and the cast’s execution make for a night of art as reflection that will not be forgotten quickly.