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Chaste, but Not Caught

In its Prim Production, Everyman Can’t Quite Capture The Children’s Hour

PUPIL, FIXED AND NOT RESPONDING: Paige Hernandez plays a vengeful student with issues in The Children's Hour.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 1/19/2005

The Children’s Hour

By Lillian Hellman

At Everyman Theatre through Feb. 20

Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour is a play about sex, even if the sex hasn’t happened. Karen Wright and Martha Dobie are two young women who have founded a small boarding school for girls on a New England farm in the early 1930s. The two are quite close, as two college best friends who go into business together would be. That closeness is what Mary Tilford seizes upon when the unhappy student is looking for a way to get back at her teachers.

Mary accuses Miss Wright and Miss Dobie of conducting a lesbian affair and begs her wealthy grandmother, Amelia Tilford, to let her out of the school. It’s obvious from the dialogue that no such affair ever took place, but it’s also obvious that Martha is suspiciously jealous of Karen’s engagement to the town doctor, Joe Cardin, and not because Martha loves Joe.

Hellman famously claimed that the play is not about lesbianism but about the power of lies, but she was being a bit disingenuous. It’s the voltage of sex that gives those lies their power, and a successful production of The Children’s Hour requires the sexual energy of Martha’s attraction to Karen, Karen’s attraction to Joe, Joe’s attraction to Karen, and Mary’s attraction to her dirty books. But sex is what’s missing from the Everyman Theatre production.

The production—a collaboration between Everyman, Rep Stage, and the Baltimore School for the Arts—is not a bad one. The plot is presented clearly and credibly, and the third act, when the adult actors are finally alone onstage, is genuinely moving, as Martha, Karen, Joe, and Amelia ruefully tally up the costs of the scandal. The pinched look in Paula Gruskiewicz’s face as she delivers Amelia’s apology and the pinched look in Tess Hartman’s face as Karen declines it make for a great theatrical moment.

Daniel Ettinger’s set captures the comfy clutter of an old-fashioned boarding school, and the show opens with seven teenage girls sprawled around a worn green sofa, studying their Shakespeare and Latin. Mary is not with them because she has been hiding out with the soft-core porn book she has smuggled into school. What this episode reveals about her sexual hunger and ignorance is crucial to what follows, but this production makes little of it.

When Mary finally shows up, she offers a transparently lame excuse for her lateness. This leads to her punishment, which leads to her running away to her grandmother’s house, which leads to the invention of the affair. Paige Hernandez, as Mary, is very good at playing the angelic victim when adults are around and equally good at playing the bully when among only students. What she’s not so good at are the transitions when we hope to glimpse the real Mary behind the role-playing.

Gruskiewicz brings an unexpected dignity to the role of Amelia. When Mary whispers the salacious details of the imagined affair in her grandmother’s ear, Gruskiewicz reacts with the sexual terror that the play demands. Too shocked to talk about it and too shocked to ignore it, she goes into a tizzy of phone calls where she tries to convey a sense of crisis through code words and inference. In her revulsion to sex, Amelia at least acknowledges its importance.

If only there had been such sexual electricity coursing between Karen and Joe or between Karen and Martha. As Karen, Hartman is everything a teacher should be—kind, patient, and imperturbable—but she talks to adults the same way she talks to her students, and that seems implausible. And whenever she hugs her fiancé or watches him enter the room, she never lights up the way a woman in love would.

Martha is as extroverted as Karen is introverted, and Stephanie Burden does a good job with Martha’s outbursts, as she rails against Mary’s behavior problems and against Amelia’s accusations. But she’s less effective in bringing out the ambiguous nature of Martha’s friendship with Karen.

In many ways, Lance Williams delivers the show’s best performance as Joe. He’s more relaxed and natural than anyone else onstage, and he injects a few moments of levity into a play that desperately needs them. But he never seems like a man who has suffered through a too-long engagement and is desperate to get his bride-to-be into bed, and there’s no hint in the dialogue or the acting that Karen and Joe have ever consummated their relationship.

To present The Children’s Hour as an intellectual puzzle about the nature of truth, as director Donald Hicken has done, is an acceptable approach. It can result in a lucid, entertaining version of an American classic, and that’s what Everyman has here. But it misses the more interesting part of the play, the part that takes place below the waist.

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