REVISITING A CLASSIC
by Arielle Lipshaw
published June 5, 2009
The Children’s Hour
now playing Off Broadway at the Good Shepherd Methodist
through June 7
It is easy to dismiss The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play about two schoolteachers accused of lesbianism, as
dated in theme and melodramatic in tone. Easy but misguided, because as this solid production staged by the Astoria Performing Arts Center
demonstrates, many of the issues Hellman struggled with in the 1930s are still just as timely and relevant today.
The Children’s Hour is set in a Massachusetts school for girls
which is run by two women, Karen Wright (Emily Dorsch) and Martha Dobie (Carmel Javaher), who have been friends since college. Their fellow
teacher is Martha’s aunt, Lily Mortar (Jacqueline Sydney), who ostensibly instructs the students in sewing and elocution, but spends most of her
time telling stories of her life in the theater and spreading gossip. Karen and Martha are soon trapped in a web of lies spun by the troubled and
malicious Mary Tilford (Lauren Marcus), lies which spiral out of control until they destroy several lives as well as the
Jessi D. Hill has directed Hellman’s text, which in the wrong hands could easily succumb to said melodrama, with simplicity and
sincerity. The women who play the schoolgirls have found exactly the right tone, portraying both the innocence and intrigue of childhood
without becoming caricatures or overemphasizing the fact that they are adults playing kids. Ms. Marcus is particularly adept at this;
mercurial and wily, she orchestrates upheavals with one hand while calmly flattering the adults around her with the other. Ms. Dorsch as
Karen is stoic, kind but cold, while Ms. Javaher as Martha gives the impression that something is always bubbling under the surface, ready
to break free at any moment. These characterizations are well supported by the costume design (Emily Morgan DeAngelis); each schoolgirl’s
uniform is slightly different, and while Karen seems comfortable in the hats, gloves, and other accoutrements of 1930s clothing, the
less-contented Martha always seems to be ill at ease and straining against them.
Although I am always a fan of a good narrative set change, where a director uses what is usually theatrical down time to continue
the storytelling, Ms. Hill’s production becomes rather bogged down with them, particularly in the change immediately before intermission,
which took so long that some members of the audience became visibly amused. It was a strange lapse in an otherwise well-paced and snappy
production. The pivotal moment of the play, when Martha confesses to Karen what her true feelings have been, is handled with understanding
and truthfulness. We are made to understand that Martha is driven to suicide not because she is participating in the overused theatrical
trope of the doomed lesbian, but because her last thread of hope rests on the possibility that Karen might return her feelings.
Ms. Hill has directed a solid production of a classic American play which is infrequently performed and even less frequently
understood. Those playgoers afraid to leave Manhattan should really reconsider; the Astoria Performing Arts Center provides just one
example of the excellent work being produced in the outer boroughs.
ariellelipshaw @ stageandcinema.com
all photos are by Jen Maufrais Kelly