The Children’s Hour
3 stars out of 5
Through Oct. 4 at the Smith Black Box Theatre, Tampa Preparatory School, 727 Cass St., Tampa, tamparep.org, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; $20, $15 students/seniors/military.
An ostensible relic
In 1936, when producer Samuel Goldwyn made a movie based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, lesbianism was considered so unspeakable a crime, the storyline of Hellman’s play had to be notably altered. In the original, a student falsely accuses two female teachers of being lovers; but in These Three, the Goldwyn/William Wyler film rewritten by Hellman herself, the young girl accuses one teacher of having an affair with her colleague’s male fiancé. Well, times change — a little. In 1962, when director Wyler took a second stab at filming Hellman’s play, the original plot was left in; but Wyler opined that “The lie has to have such a devastating effect that to be credible it must be appalling.” In other words, lesbianism, though now admissible in the cinema, had to be understood as horrific if the movie’s plot were to make sense. Everything depended on homosexuality being seen, in one gay activist’s words, as “pathological, predatory and dangerous.”
Well, now it’s 2015 and times really have changed, at least at the Supreme Court and in some urban centers. But one has to remember the stigma that gay and lesbian life struggled under for so much of the last century if one hopes to understand Hellman’s drama, now on stage in a just-more-than-adequate production by Tampa Rep. When young Mary Tilford accuses teachers Karen Wright and Martha Dobie of being lovers, it’s not with the knowledge that the two women are breaking some in-house rule against fraternizing. The accusation is supposed to be catastrophic, unthinkable, referring to a wickedness so shocking as to beggar the imagination. If we see Hellman’s drama with contemporary eyes (as we must), we miss the playwright’s intention, not to mention her audacity. This piece was meant to épater le bourgeois, stun and discomfit us, and, in its surprising third act, leave us dazed and confused. In the era of gay marriage, it (fortunately) can’t accomplish this. There’s still suspense and good plotting, but we can’t feel what Hellman intended.
In spite of this fact, Tampa Rep does a solid job of trying to communicate what remains. Two performances particularly make the production memorable. Katie Castonguay as Martha Dobie is a sympathetic figure, a good-hearted woman who just can’t hide her emotions as well as she’d like, a lovely soul condemned to misunderstanding and tragedy. As her accuser Mary Tilford, Olivia Sargent is forcefully evil. This is no sympathetic adolescent, tortured by hormones and a paradoxical world; this is a narcissistic, mean-spirited brat, a girl who lies and bullies and fakes a heart attack when annoyed. It would be dishonest to claim that children this consistent don’t exist; anyone who’s survived middle school has known a few of them, and still may know some. The other actors are usually tolerable, though in a large cast (more than a dozen) there aren’t really any standouts. As Martha Dobie, the other woman accused of lesbianism, Emily Belvo is likable but not very dimensional; and as her fiancé Dr. Joseph Cardin, Derrick Phillips, sporting an anachronistically shaved head, offers simple goodness a little too simply.
The usually excellent Lynne Locher plays Martha’s aunt Lily Mortar with too exaggerated a theatricality (she’s supposed to be stagestruck, but this is extreme), and Donna DeLonay as the lying child’s grandmother is yet another actor who plays her surface well but lacks deeper levels. Some things change in Act Three: Locher’s character becomes genuinely conflicted, and Belvo displays a full range of emotions for the first time. Emilia Sargent (Olivia S.’s mother, and a fine actress herself) directs capably, though I’m not sure why she occasionally has a performer stand downstage center and make her remarks facing the audience. Connie LaMarca-Frankel’s costumes, including the schoolgirls’ navy-and-white uniforms, are nicely imagined, but Amanda Bearss’ set of the Wright-Dobie School in acts one and three is too anemic-looking to convince us that we’re where we’re supposed to be. Jo Averill-Snell’s lighting is pleasingly professional.
There are other plays that have lost their edge because of developments in modern social life — a drama once as mind-boggling as Ibsen’s Ghosts now provokes laughter. The Children’s Hour is still interesting, and it’s even useful in showing how bigotry can destroy lives. But with every year — and every court decision — a play like this happily loses its shock value. We can hope for the day when it seems utterly passé.