The Children's Hour
nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
May 23, 2009
In this America, the one in which we currently live, it is commendable to choose such a timely and appropriate play as Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. Astoria Performing Arts Center is shrewd to include in the program the almost unbelievable back story of this classic work. That is to say, the fact that it was passed up for the Pulitzer Prize because a member of the committee refused to see it due to its contents, the suggestion of two women participating in inappropriate behavior with one another, which rendered the play ineligible for the award. It's shocking that almost 80 years after its Broadway premiere we are still arguing about the same subject: should homosexual people be allowed the same rights as heterosexual people? The Children's Hour takes us back to a time when the idea wasn't even up for discussion.
Setting it in its original era (1934), director Jessi D. Hill has given us a very straightforward production. She clearly understands the magnitude of the piece. The story takes place in a converted farmhouse where the two main characters, Karen and Martha, have founded a boarding school for 12-13 year old girls. The simple and somehow still stunning set, designed by Caleb Levengood, coupled with the gorgeous and appropriate lighting design by Gina Scherr, make the perfect stage for this high-stakes drama. The costumes, designed by Emily Morgan DeAngelis are next to flawless. Everyone is clothed appropriate to period and they look phenomenal. However, there is one very prominent flaw. I found the ages of the girls to be very vague. The actors cast are clearly adults, yet they are treated as 12- or 13-year-olds and somehow the majority, especially Mary Tilford, the budding sociopath played by Lauren Marcus, speak as though they are 7 or 8. It creates a sort of puzzle that is almost impossible to solve. Another piece of the puzzle is the choice to have Mary, a very prominent and important role in the play, wearing unnaturally red hair with at least an inch of brunette showing through at the roots. It is inappropriate for a girl of 12 or 13 in the 1930s and ages the actress into her 20s.
That aside, I found the true gems of this piece to be the actors playing some of the girls. Peggy, played by Lydia Woods, Evelyn, played by Katherine Folk-Sullivan, and most prominently Rosalie, brilliantly performed by Emily Kratter, are perfectly cast. The rest of the student ensemble members are equally compelling, even though their stage time was limited.
For the most part the actors are spot-on. Emily Dorsch's portrayal of Karen Wright is lovely to watch. She is natural and powerful with a sort of grace that is rare to witness on such a small stage. She is juxtaposed nicely by Carmel Javaher's solid performance as Martha Dobie. One conservative, one temperamental and sarcastic, both kind-hearted and driven; they are excellently paired. Also, Charlotte Hampden's performance as Mrs. Tilford is a sight to behold. She is somehow vulnerable in her fatal gossip and that is the mark of an artist.
Yet other supporting cast members seem to lose the natural presence of their characters. G.R. Johnson as Dr. Joseph Cardin, Jacqueline Sydney as Mrs. Mortar, and Lauren Marcus as Mary Tilford embody a sort of stereotypical 1930s "actor" that became distracting and, much to my dismay, took me out of the moment. I am a firm believer that a director should go all out with a concept, either natural and real all the way, or stereotypical to the core. Either would have been an alright choice, but the clash of styles was a consistent reminder that I was watching a play, not witnessing a real and important moment. I was also confused by the director's choice to use Marcus in a cameo role as the grocery boy during the second act. Without even a vocal change, it was distracting and odd. I felt a stir in the audience as people asked one another if that "was Mary or what?" It seems like it would have been easier to cast another actor or use a less showcased cast member in the part.
I was very impressed with Hill's choice to have choreographer Tiffany Rachelle Stewart put together her transitions. For the most part these movement-based set changes are incredibly beautiful and effective, with the exception of the transition moving from the first half into intermission. It is so long and drawn out after an otherwise powerful stopping point that it becomes comical. Each time I thought we had reached the last, slow, mechanical set piece change, another followed. It lasted for what seemed like forever and was extremely anticlimactic, ending in the intermission. I think Hill did herself and the show a disservice. She had me eating out of her hand in the final scene and then made me sit there watching a set change rather than leaving me wanting more.
I was on an emotional roller coaster throughout the production, drawn in one moment and completely taken out the next. Still the production is worth the trip to Astoria simply to experience this tale. Although Hellman was known to say "It isn't a play about a lesbian, it's a play about a lie," the subject matter remains discussion-inspiring. Is the idea of two women in love worth destroying lives? How can humans even let that hatred have that much power? Have things really changed all that much since the '30s? Go see the APAC production of The Children's Hour and decide for yourself.