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Review - The Children's Hour

Peggy Mullen
The Patriot Ledger
May 13, 2010
‘Children’s Hour’ is anything but kid stuff

Playwright Lillian Hellman said the motivation for her first play, “The Children’s Hour,” was to tell a story about a lie.

Many other themes have been ascribed to the work in the years since it was produced on Broadway in 1934, and the play was banned in Boston and other cities for the implied lesbian relationship between school teachers Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the “lie” upon which the drama revolves.

The play takes place in the Wright-Dobie school for girls, where Mary Tilford, a truly evil child if there ever was one, is a student. The school has been endowed by her rich grandmother, a fact that Mary takes full advantage of in her power struggles with the adults charged with her education.

High school senior Rebecca Dickinson, who looks much younger than her years, plays Mary as a petulant, spoiled and manipulative girl devoid of conscience, driven only by selfishness. She pouts, she whines, she wheedles, and Dickinson succeeds almost immediately in making you hate her.

Only headmistress Karen Wright can stand up to Mary. Shannon Lillian Hogan plays Wright smoothly, from the cut of her clothes to the grace of her movement. This woman is confident and self-assured in her authority as well as her femininity, a threatening and inappropriate way to behave in the 1930s, when women were expected to aspire to nothing more than marriage and motherhood.

Valerie Sheehy as Lily Mortar, Martha Dobie’s freeloading aunt, is the epitome of the woman of the times. Needy and supercilious, she’s an old woman without a husband and she treats her niece as a meal ticket. Sheehy’s shrill delivery includes a dusting of sadness, just enough to elicit pity even when the character is at her most odious. There’s an emotional link between Lily and Mary, two women, one old, one young, trying to assert themselves in a world that grants high status to only the young and powerful.

The exception to the rule is Mary’s grandmother. As Mrs. Tilford, Sharon Evans delivers the most impressive performance as the rich matriarch whose weakness for the whims of her granddaughter becomes destructive. The lie, whispered into Mrs. Tilford’s ear by Mary, is that Miss Wright and Miss Dobie are lovers. It is how Mrs. Tilford acts on that information that wreaks havoc on the lives of everyone at the school.

Martha Dobie suffers most, we’re to learn eventually. Deanna McLean’s portrayal of her as a no-nonsense teacher and pragmatic businesswoman barely hints at the inner turmoil she reveals at the end.

Your heart goes out to Rosalie Wells, the fellow student who Mary extorts into colluding in the lie. Kirstyn Toughey of Pembroke is excellent in the pivotal role of a frightened young girl easily bullied into submission by her fear of being exposed as a thief.

Sexual orientation, while still controversial, is no longer shocking, and Hellman’s play is dated in that regard. But in the age of digital communication, when information can be spread enormous distances in a nanosecond, it’s chilling to consider the consequences of an idle lie.