The Children’s Hour

By Jocelyn McMahon

DEEPLY CONTROVERSIAL for its time, and still considered by some as “scandalous,” The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman that premiered on Broadway in 1934, thrives on shock-value as it questions the relationship of two women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie who run an all-girls boarding school and are accused of having a lesbian affair by an angry student, Mary Tilford, who seeks revenge. Based off a true incident that took place in 1810 at a school in Edinburgh, Scotland, the script makes a strong statement on intolerance and how a simple rumor can ruin a life forever.

Although it was a success, it may come as no surprise that the subject matter was not well-received by all and was denied consideration for the 1934–35 Pulitzer Prize for Drama because of its controversial subject matter. Hellman was no stranger to controversy, and was later blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the height of the anti-communist movement and was also blacklisted by the American film industry. No matter, she was to become the first woman to be admitted to the club of American dramatists and became one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century.

But enough history.

Danny Schieie’s production of The Children’s Hour at the Mainstage Theater on the campus of UCSC, follows the rebellious nature of playwright Lillian Hellman, choosing cross-gender casting that not only offers an opportunity to showcase some of the program’s impressive male talent in a script written almost exclusively female, but also makes a statement on gender and sexuality. And damn is it relevant today.

The artistic direction of this show is truly brilliant. Simplistic yet effective, we feel the torture of daily life of arithmetic and Latin conveyed both visually and audibly. The set with its array of rolling chalkboards immediately transports us to The Wright-Dobie School for Girls. We first meet Mary Tilford, played by graduate student Magdalena Travis. Perhaps the most pivotal character in the show, the role could be easily played as an overdone maniac, but Travis effortlessly pulls it off with ease and subtlety and is phenomenal as the sociopathic Mary. A truly dark character, she portrays the “innocence” of a young girl authentically, while carrying a little smirk that reminds us there is something lying underneath that sweet young face that her grandmother sees.

Right off the bat Allie Pratt, also a graduate student, establishes Martha Dobie as a strong intellectual woman who means well, but also knows how to hold her own. Quick and expressive, Pratt has the quality of a professional actor and carries us with her on her painful journey that begins at the height of her career and ends in despair. Perhaps her most powerful moment is in the final act when she realizes that she may have actually had feelings for Karen beyond friendship. Her confession to Karen is so authentically tragic that she has to face the truth; she really is out of options.

Undergraduate Melissa Cuhna takes a little longer to come to life as Karen Wright, but by Act 3 she skillfully portrays the torture she is feeling as she tells her fiancé Joe to leave her in order to escape the stigma that follows her and move on with his life.

With his booming voice and thick mustache, undergraduate Rey Cordova is great as the very masculine Doctor Joe Cardin. Stuck in a world surrounded by women, Joe is kind, caring and respects the women around him (a feminist’s dream come true). We can see how despite Martha’s feelings for Karen, she really does like Joe, and so does the audience. This makes it even more tragic when he is pulled into the aftermath of the rumor, and his marriage, and almost his career, is ruined by intolerance and judgment.

Professor of Dramatic Literature, Theater Arts and Director of Graduate Studies Michael Chemers joined the cast of The Children’s Hour as Mrs. Lily Mortar, and wow were they lucky to have him. The intentionally un-nuanced performance by Chemers as the onetime thespian turned reluctant teacher sprinkles the morbid play with a comedic tone. It is reminiscent of the batty old aunt that we wish we didn’t have to see at holidays. One of my favorite moments is the interaction Mortar has with her niece Martha who is asking her politely to GO AWAY. Mortar dramatically states “God will punish you” to which Martha responds “He’s doing all right.” But despite Mortar’s egocentric personality and selfish actions, we can understand her sense of fear and underlying guilt that come across magnificently in Chemers performance.

The utilization of the supporting characters throughout the show added a kind of Greek Choral effect that adds commentary and makes us feel like we are really in the chaotic estrogen packed home of adolescents. From scene changes to musical numbers these girls (and boys) helped set the tone of the show and made it not just the lives of the central characters (don’t get me wrong—intriguing and dramatic) but about the lives of everyone. My favorite moment may have been the top of Act 3 after Martha and Karen have lost the school. The lights come up on an ironically cheery tap number while the two women sit distraught in their undergarments while the students scribble profanity in chalk around the stage. A weird mix of emotions.

Some other smaller performances that I’d like to give note to were Rosalie Wells, played by undergrad Carissa Chu, the innocent roommate of Mary who gets manipulated into the scheme to destroy Martha and Karen. Also Jesus Pedroza-Moreno as Evelyn Munn, the sassy cheerleader “friend” of Mary, had excellent movement skills and added a great layer of comedic relief with his timing and facial expressions. Agatha, the maid to the Tilfords, played by undergrad Adrian Zamora, stole the light in any scene he was featured in adding sincerity, as well as humor, to every word uttered.

Anger and shock are definitely engines that keep this piece afloat, even in 2018.  In a time when “truth” has become less fact-based more about political agendas, who knows what can be achieved with a small rumor and the help of some friends. As director Danny Scheie puts it, “The play has gone in and out of style. I just think now is the time. The play has become dangerous again.” I couldn’t agree more.

The production continues through this Sunday.  

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo