“Between the dark and the daylight, /When the light is beginning to lower, /Comes a pause in the day’s occupations, /That is known as the Children’s Hour.”
These are the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem “The Children’s Hour,” that describes an idyllic evening ritual with his own daughters, and which, by the early 20th century, had become a great favorite of the American public.
Why Lillian Hellman would choose to name her 1934 stage play after the title of the poem seems puzzling, since the subject matter is far from idyllic. But the play, which is the latest offering at the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach, certainly emphasizes an additional interpretation of lines at the conclusion of the forth stanza: “They are plotting and planning together /To take me by surprise.”
The Children’s Hour is set in a girl’s boarding school in Massachusetts which is run by longtime friends Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, with some teaching assistance by retired actress Lily Mortar, who is Martha’s aunt. Karen is engaged to local doctor Joe Cardin, and Joe’s young cousin, Mary, a troublesome and difficult girl, is a student at the school. One afternoon Mary leaves the school without permission and travels to town and the home of her grandmother, Mrs. Tilford, a wealthy and influential woman in the community. Mary tells Mrs. Tilford that Karen and Martha are lovers (you can read about the real life case which inspired Hellman in LTVB’s program) and the rest of the play concerns the consequences of that story.
Although the subject of homosexuality in a stage play was obviously much more shocking in the nineteen thirties, it would be a disservice to dismiss The Children’s Hour as merely an interesting relic. It is not a play about what people thought of lesbians in pre-World War II American society, it is a play about the power of rumors and prevarication.
Another great strength of Hellman’s script is that the characters are multi-faceted, requiring each actor to portray complex feelings and show many sides of a personality. Unfortunately, this production often falls short in this aspect. Mary Lou Mahlman does a good job of demonstrating Lily Mortar’s extravagant flamboyance, leaving the woman’s sadness and low self-esteem unseen. Gregory Dragas as Joe easily displays boyish charm and, later, fearful desperation, but when required to be stern and seething in act two he misses the mark. Josette Dubois as Martha spends much of the play overacting and pulling faces, then comes fully to life when Martha is fiercely defending herself or spitting venom.
Kylie McKee is effective at showing all of Mary’s diverse tactics for manipulating those around her, yet she seems sometimes to be indicating rather than inhabiting her character. Perhaps it might be because she is concentrating on playing a character significantly younger than herself. All the performers portraying the schoolgirls and other supporting characters do a competent job, although I think that Abby Asimos’s portrayal of Rosalie Wells would probably have had more impact had she concentrated on a more measured delivery of her lines.
There are, however, two actresses in this production who give nearly flawless performances. They are Abbey Ortiz as Karen and Ann Heywood as Mrs. Tilford. It may seem elementary, but each woman convincingly portrays a broad spectrum of emotions, resulting in characterizations that are nuanced and powerful. In addition, each is completely at home in her character’s skin, (thus avoiding the physical awkwardness that afflicts several of the actors in this production and results in their sometimes standing stiffly with their arms gracelessly at their sides). The characters of Karen and Mrs. Tilford are fully realized human beings who inhabit the world of the play completely.
That world is marvelously represented by Donna Lawheed’s set. The study/living room of the converted farmhouse that is the school is a warm, inviting area that shows its history and purpose. This simultaneously shares the stage with a lower level that is Mrs. Tilford’s living room, the stark elegance of which contrasts with the coziness of the other space. All of Heather Shannon’s props (including a stereopticon!) are fantastic. None look inaccurate or unlikely. The comfortable hodgepodge of objects in the school setting and the cool simplicity of items in the Tilford home reveal as much about the characters as the script. The lighting, by Alex Mason, declines to grab our attention, choosing instead to be natural (love all the lamps), and perfectly delineates each acting area without any distracting spillover into the empty section. I loved the pre-show music, which consisted of period pieces that set the mood very well. The intermission and curtain call music were modern pieces that comment on the action of the play. I am not a fan of modern music in a period play (even when that music is not heard during the play itself), and I feel that the contrast is too jarring when the atmosphere of the 1930s was arranged so nicely by the pre-show music, set and props. I saw no sound design credit in the program.
The costumes, by Kay Burcher, have a wonderfully authentic period look, but there are a few confusing choices. Even in the 30s, would two women desperate to confront someone about a potentially life and career ruining suggestion take the time to change clothes before going to her house? I had always assumed that they each threw on a hat and a coat over their day dresses before going to Mrs. Tilford’s, but this production has both of them put on much nicer dresses, gloves, hats, and pearls. I can’t imagine Martha saying, “We’ve got to rush over there and confront that evil woman! But first, let’s take the time to put on our pearls.” In the same scene, Joe is wearing a seersucker suit that he was not wearing earlier in the day and it is now evening. Did he change into a seersucker suit when his Aunt called him and told him to come right over? These problems concern only three costumes, but, as a costume designer myself, I found them very distracting.
Kathy Hinson and Kelly Gilliam are credited as co-directors of this production, and, although I am unfamiliar with their processes, it is possible that differences in directing styles and directing choices are responsible for all the uneven aspects the play. But if you are interested in seeing a classic and important play that has been presented, although imperfectly, with respect and purpose, the Little Theatre of Virginia Beach’s production of The Children’s Hour is well worth seeing.
The Children’s Hour runs through June 5 at Little Theatre of VA Beach. Tix: $17 Regular, $14 for Students, Seniors, Military, and Sunday matinee. (757) 428-9233 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.