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From a thematic perspective, the 79-year-old play still incites some social relevance. Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour explores the devastating unraveling of two teachers as a result of an ill-intended rumor that their relationship was “unnatural.” The Elon University Department of Performing Arts production adequately navigated the motifs of gossip and homosexuality as best it could, yet unfortunately did so with a delivery that was at times melodramatic.
The play was infamously successful upon its premiere in 1934 and revival in 1952, largely because of its dealings with lesbianism as a subject matter. Paradoxically, the acclaimed reception of Hellman’s work has been, over time, attributed to the insidious nature of slander instead of its take on homophobia and heteronormality. As a result, for modern audiences there is the looming question of what the play is most pressingly about, the ramifications of a lie or the severity of a suppressed truth?
Hellman is on record stating that while writing The Children’s Hour, her concern was not on the sexual orientations of her protagonists, but on the magnitude and potential of the lie. However, it can be argued that the play’s agenda rests more engrained in reinforcing societal ideology of female sexuality.
It is assumed the play is inspired by the actual Scottish case from 1810: two women running an all-girl school were accused by a student of participating in deviant sexual behavior; the teachers eventually won the case. It is in the subtle creative liberties which Hellman takes with the story that bring to light definitive notions towards lesbianism that are more immediate than the play’s outlook on rumor. In The Children’s Hour, the trial is lost, and after Martha admits to feelings of passion towards Karen, her character is killed. The ending appears to be conservatively constructed to convey a society where abnormality or subversive behavior is rightly punished.
This production was plagued by a few performances of characters that appeared one-dimensional and not fully realized. This was particularly evident with the always-angry Martha Dobie (Adriadne Vickers-Davis) and the perpetually evil Mary Tilford (Leah Greene). Both actors had moments that were overly heightened and did not read as sincere.
A standout performance can be credited to Maggie Kittner for her portrayal of the tender and thoughtful Karen Wright. Kittner was able to bring a gentle determination to the role without falling victim to melodrama. Each of her intentions and acting choices was grounded in honesty and provoked compassion.
There were a number of creative components that made this production unique. The use of the cast throughout transitions to narrate historical facts about the playwright and the political climate of her time created depth and pretense that could have been lacking. The scenic design provided an effective use of Black Box Theatre’s space. Circling the parameter of the stage were sections where the young schoolgirls were able to doodle and write messages about their characters in floor chalk. The set transitioned from a common space in the school (equipped with a large wooden table, desk, and a scattering of chairs) to a residential sitting room (with an elegant couch, rug, sherry table, and even a beautiful chandelier). Each piece of furniture not being utilized on stage in a given scene served as a rest area for the actors off stage. This created an intimacy with the audience as actors joined the spectatorship.
Although the ambition of Ms. Hellman’s play may be debatable, it is apparent why it continues to have revived success. Any piece of art that after almost 80 years can still represent current yet controversial themes deserves attention from an audience. Draw your own conclusions as to what it is really about.
The Children’s Hour continues through Wednesday, October 9. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.