Suffer the children
by Michael Dresdner
Making entertainment of something as darkly disturbing and emotionally charged as The Children’s Hour is no mean feat. Nevertheless, director John Munn pulled together some wonderful actors on a cleverly innovative set to offer up a moving, if upsetting, evening of serious drama at Lakewood Playhouse.
Apparently based on a chillingly similar event that occurred in Scotland in 1810, this 1934 play, which was Lillian Hellman’s first successful work, is set in a girls’ boarding school run by two women. Karen Wright (Maggie Lofquist) has been putting off her beau, Dr. Joseph Cardin (Paul Richter) for years in order to work with close friend Martha Dobie (Deya Ozburn) to get their school off the ground. Martha’s cross to bear is her loose-lipped, critical aunt, Lily Mortar (Laura Kessler), whose claim to fame is a somewhat embellished theatre career and whose personal mission is to force etiquette onto the school’s girls.
One of the girls, Mary Tilford (Kira Zinck), is a spoiled, duplicitous bully who runs away to the home of her influential dowager grandmother (Carol Richmond). Mary tells her grandmother that the two schoolmarms are having a lesbian affair. Grandma makes calls, and overnight, all the students are removed from school.
When Rosalie (Gabriela Aleman), a mousy classmate with a secret to hide, arrives at the house, Mary blackmails her into corroborating the lie. After a failed slander suit and damning publicity, both the school and the women’s personal lives collapse into complete wreckage. When the truth finally comes to light, it is too late be of any help, as the lie has destroyed all of the adults it touched.
Anchoring the play were outstanding portrayals by the two schoolmarms. Lofquist was exceptional as the stolid, caring Wright, in love with the doctor but loyal to her students and colleague. Ozburn offered up a first-rate profile of Dobie, first pushed to the brink by her loquaciously critical aunt, then un-hinged by the destruction created by Mary’s lie.
The girls making up the student body formed an excellent ensemble supporting cast, led by two standouts. Zinck did a superb job crafting a convincingly conniving Mary, swinging from put-upon innocent to self-centered bully in the wink of an eye. Backing her up was Aleman’s equally fine portrayal of the timidly insecure and easily manipulated Rosalie.
Along with mood enhancing lighting, Judy Cullen provided a very clever set, beautifully painted by Kim Izenman, consisting primarily of a central, two-tiered mesa as the main acting space. Its proscribed top lent an appropriately forced intimacy to the many emotional scenes. The surrounding second tier provided imagined hallways and anterooms where entering and exiting actors could be seen by the audience, but not, in our imaginations, by the players in the center. Normal doors in oversized frames at the two corners insinuated a false perspective, helping us establish the mental image of a large, rambling farmhouse.
Much of the costuming by Kelli McGowan was spot on, from the matronly garb on Dobie and Wright to the varied, yet consistent, school uniforms on the girls. However, there were some odd choices. Joseph seemed too primly coiffed and clad for a working doctor and the aunt and the dowager appeared underdressed; the former too sedately for her pretensions and the latter too modestly for her station.
Great drama, and this fine production qualifies, entertains not with frivolous distraction but with emotional upheaval. When you go to see The Children’s Hour, and you should, gird yourself for what is coming, and go with the assurance that your emotions will be torqued through a buffeting but worthwhile journey.
The Children’s Hour
Jan 11 to Feb 3, 2013