Entertainment » Theatre

The Children’s Hour

by Kay Bourne
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Jun 10, 2009
Emilie Battle (left) and Abigail Walter in The Children’s Hour.
Emilie Battle (left) and Abigail Walter in The Children’s Hour.   

In the days when school children memorized poems to recite in class, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's saccharine The Children's Hour was a favorite. Written in 1859, with lines such as "I hear in the chamber above me the patter of little feet, the sound of a door that is opened, and voices soft and sweet," the stanzas evoke the Victorian ideal of childhood.

Lillian Hellman's acerbic The Children's Hour likely references Longfellow's title (one of the best known narrative poems in the English language) but she's got a very different take on the innocence of children. Her 1934 stage play, the first Broadway commercial success to have lesbianism as a theme, tells how a malicious lie from a willful little girl ruins the relationships, careers, and lives of her teachers.

The play ran in New York for an astounding 700 performances but was banned in Boston by the city's mayor because of the exploration of a gay relationship. A suit for $250,000.00 in damages against the city failed and The Children's Hour wasn't seen here until the 1961 film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as the maligned teachers.

A rare opportunity to see Hellman's riveting drama on stage is provided by The African American Theater Festival, celebrating its 9th season with a series of play about women. The remaining performances are this week: Wednesday, June 10th at 7:30 pm, Thursday, June 11 at 7:30 pm, and Saturday, June 1 at 8 pm (the final performance). Presented by Our Place Theater, The Children's Hour is being performed in the BCA Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St. in the South End. Artistic director of Our Place Theater and the director of The Children's Hour Jacqui Parker chose the Hellman play for its relevance to bullying on the Internet and in the playground which has recently resulted in the suicides of two children.

Interestingly, taking into account that the play is part of the African American Theater Festival, the 19th century law suit that occurred in Scotland upon which Hellman based her play was prompted by the accusation about a lesbian relationship between two female teachers from a child of color who also claimed to her grandmother that she was mistreated because of her dark skin. The child, like Mary in the play, was orphaned; her dad was the favored son of the aristocratic grandmother and a native woman he met while serving in India. Hellman made nothing of the race factor in her play probably feeling she would be taking on too many controversial themes.

Clearly, the 70-year-old drama hasn't lost its punch. Insightfully directed by Parker, whose skill with child actors is remarkable, the involving storyline had an opening night audience glued to their seats.

The bratty Mary Tilford feels she is put upon by the two women who run the small New England boarding school the child attends. The teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobbs, who have invested their lives and finances into establishing the school, are actually very even handed in their treatment of the obstinate little girl who not only is head strong but bullies the other girls in her class. Mary has a fainting spell to get her own way but when that doesn't work, she runs away to her grandmother who usually pampers her. To avoid being sent back, Mary meanly tells her grandmother that the two headmistresses are having a lesbian affair.

The story has a twist that has a shocking result.

The acting matches Hellman's subtly expressed realism in which life cruises along at a normal speed until passionate moments erupt out of the circumstances at hand. Emile Battle is superb as Martha who struggles to maintain her equilibrium. Abigail Walter gives a strong performance as Karen, a staunch friend. She shows personal courage when her life turns upside down.

June Levin puts in an excellent performance as the doting grandmother who abuses her social advantage over the two teachers. Thomas Martin is fine as the doctor who as Karen's fianc? tries to be a good guy when that level of commitment isn't enough. Sharon Squires is entertaining and poignant as the aging Aunt Lily Mortar, a self centered diva. Leeta White does nicely in her small role as the grandmother's maid.

8th grader Emma Romasco perfectly expresses the hateful child Mary whose spiteful ways wreck havoc. Cheyenne Jones, who is a similar age, is also excellent as Rosalie who gets black mailed into being Mary's cats-paw. Noel Johnson is amusing as the bold boy who delivers groceries to the school. The troupe of children in supporting roles are every one good in their parts: Cecilia Petit, Cayla M. Johnson, Delaney Ingalls, Nadeaya Frazier, and Tiffanii Rabb.

Set designer Peter Colao aptly suggests the boarding school main room and the grandmother's grander sitting room with a few well chosen pieces of furniture. Jonathan Bonner's lighting is helpful in establishing mood as well as time of day.

Lillian Hellman tended to argue that her debut play, The Children's Hour, was about the devastating effect of a big lie but she in so doing she was overlooking the importance of the theme of lesbianism. Her story has relevance today on both points.

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