A Student’s Lie Disrupts Her Teachers’ Lives in “The Children’s Hour”; Princeton Summer Theater Offers a Bold Production of Lillian Hellman’s Play
“THE CHILDREN’S HOUR”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “The Children’s Hour.” Directed by Maeli Goren, the play runs through August 5 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Teachers Karen Wright (Lydia Watt, left) and Martha Dobie (Allison Spann) face the calamity that is caused by a student’s malicious lie. (Photo by Aaron Olkin)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
The Children’s Hour is an edgy drama set in an all-girls boarding school. One of the students tells a malicious lie that disrupts the school, as well as the lives of the two women who run it. Another student is portrayed by a doll, manipulated by the actor who plays the fiancé of one of the teachers. Directed by Maeli Goren, Princeton Summer Theater’s bold production emphasizes the theatricality inherent in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play.
Two teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, have built a girls’ boarding school in a renovated farmhouse. They run the school with the rather unwelcome assistance of Martha’s aunt, Lily Mortar. In the first scene, Lily — with limited success — is teaching elocution and sewing to students such as Peggy Rogers, Evelyn Munn, and Rosalie Wells.
Other students include Lois Fisher — who is portrayed by the doll operated by the actor who plays Karen’s fiancé, Dr. Joseph Cardin — and Mary Tilford, a mischievous girl who is very late for class. Mary elicits leniency by saying that she gathered flowers while taking a walk, and presenting them to Lily. However, Karen points out that there was an identical bouquet in the garbage that morning. Karen forbids Mary to leave the school grounds, and Mary threatens to tell her grandmother “how everybody treats me here.” Upon being sent to her room, Mary feigns illness.
The set by Jeffrey Van Velsor is painstakingly symmetrical. One has the sense that this world is orderly — but the orderliness is fragile. Indeed, the symmetry is ruined when a character kicks one of the doors out of frustration at Mary’s behavior.
While Dr. Cardin, who is Mary’s cousin as well as Karen’s fiancé, examines Mary, Martha offers to give Lily money to pay for a trip abroad. Offended by the transparent attempt to send her away, Lily shouts that Martha becomes jealous and irritable whenever Joe is around. Evelyn and Peggy, who have been eavesdropping to learn about Mary’s condition, overhear the ensuing argument.
After being pronounced healthy by Dr. Cardin, Mary draws information about the quarrel out of her classmates. She makes her way to the home of Amelia Tilford, her doting, indulgent grandmother, and pleads to stay with her. As the scene changes from the school to Amelia’s home, Maeve Brady expressively sings “Stormy Weather” as she transforms from Peggy into Amelia.
Amelia insists on sending Mary back to school, so Mary uses the information overheard by her classmates to persuade her grandmother that Martha and Karen are lesbians. Amelia calls the parents of the other students, who are pulled out of the school. Rosalie’s mother is out of the country, so she stays at Amelia’s house —despite the mutual dislike between Rosalie and Mary.
Karen and Martha go to Amelia’s house to confront her, and Dr. Cardin interrogates Mary, whose story has a flaw that is pointed out by Karen. Taking advantage of the fact that Rosalie borrowed some jewelry without permission, Mary blackmails her into corroborating the lies she has invented — and pretends to have been covering for her. Martha and Karen announce their intention to sue Amelia for libel.
Once we see the extent to which Mary is able to manipulate multiple characters, the opening scene’s use of puppetry becomes apt. It immediately establishes Goren’s style, and as an exploration of concepts such as manipulation and facades, the use of the doll is an inventive device.
E Harper Nora Jeremijenko-Conley’s performance as Mary is operatic in the best sense. In a heartbeat her tone of voice alternates between defiant and obsequious, shrill and dulcet. Mary is a repugnant character, but she is entertaining to watch.
Lydia Watt as Karen, and Allison Spann as Martha, contrast this with performances that are more reserved, letting subtle body language express a variety of emotions. These actors are deliberate in their choices early in the play, which gives them room to crescendo and give the final act the emotional power it requires. Maeve Brady delivers a similarly nuanced portrayal of Amelia.
Carol Lee is equally satisfying as Amelia’s taciturn but steely maid, Agatha, who, unlike her boss, never is fooled by Mary. Evan Gedrich is entertaining in his gender-bending performance as Lois, and his portrayal of Dr. Cardin is a boyish mixture of flippancy and earnestness that suits the character. The cast is ably rounded out by Chamari White-Mink as Lily, and Rebecca Wei Hsieh as Rosalie and a rude grocery boy.
The transition between the last two acts is marked by the interpolation of another song. Spann delivers a soulful, aching rendition of “All of Me,” as one character causes a startling change of appearance in another.
After the trial, the rumor persists that Martha and Karen are lovers. In the final act, they confront the impact this has on their lives. Karen, in particular, is forced to re-examine her relationships with both Martha and Dr. Cardin. Watt shines in Karen’s final exchanges with both characters, as well as a last encounter with Amelia. To the question of whether Karen has romantic feelings for Martha, Goren explicitly offers an answer in a coda she has added.
In tandem with Megan Berry’s lighting, the sound design by Naveen Bhatia heightens the emotional impact of crucial scenes. The costumes by Julia Peiperl —based on a color palette mostly consisting of white, dark blue, and gray — evoke the time period while supporting gender fluidity, a component of Goren’s staging.
Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) dedicated the script of The Children’s Hour, her first play, to mystery writer Dashiell Hammett — with whom she was romantically involved — who suggested the subject matter. Hellman adapted the plot from “the story of an early nineteenth-century Scottish court case about two female schoolteachers accused by a disgruntled young pupil of ‘unnatural affection’ for each other,” Hellman biographer Alice Kessler-Harris notes in A Difficult Woman (Bloomsbury Press, 2012).
Hellman began writing the play “in 1932 at the age of 26, three years after the stock market crashed and launched the Great Depression,” Goren adds in her program notes. “During the development of the play … the tides of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia rose steadily worldwide.”
Goren frequently eschews realism to explore the alienation effect espoused by Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and director who was a contemporary of Hellman. This is exemplified by the use of dual roles, the interpolation of songs, and having the actors don wigs and move scenery in full view of the audience. These techniques were designed to distance the audience emotionally from the action and characters.
However, the convincing performances Goren has elicited from her lead actors ensure that their characters — and the calamitous situations they face — are vivid. Also, the students are given less to do late in the show, but the staging uses them to great effect, particularly at the play’s chilling climax. The direction and performances highlight the poignancy of Hellman’s script.
“The Children’s Hour” will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through August 5. For tickets, show times, and further information call (732) 997-0205 or visit http://www.princetonsummertheater.org/childrenshour.