Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Children's House (Beck Center)

‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR’ receives fine production at Beck

Some might claim that Lillian Helman’s ‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR,’ now on stage at the Beck Center, is outdated, at least regarding its sexual identity content. The argument goes that this is an age of enlightenment and such a subject as lesbianism is not that shocking. There is a cable series dedicated to the “L” word. Two women can get married in Massachusetts, most of Canada and much of Europe. What’s the big deal?

Well, only the naive believe that times have really changed. There is still a major movement against same-sex relationships as was witnessed just last November when 11 states passed anti-gay marriage acts and elected a president who is proposing a Constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. The right wing religionists are still pushing their agenda to make the rest of the US culture follow their beliefs. Add to this the other major topics of the play: gossip, lying, blackmail, the power of the rich, and you’ve got even a broader basis for saying that in spite of its stilted melodramatic mold and language, the play is present-day relevant.

The plot concerns two female friends who run a school for girls. Enter the sociopathic student Mary Tilford whose purpose in life is to get what she wants, when she wants it, and damn the costs. Mary has a strong weapon...her influential grandmother..who is in the social position to control the community and the fate of the school. Mary makes up a lie, expands on the truth, blackmails a fellow student to back up her tale, and grandma spreads the rumor to the other parents, who then remove their children from the school. The end result is the closing of the school, the disintegration of one of the women’s engagements and eventual total tragedy. As in all good melodramas the truth comes out at the end, but it is too late.

When ‘THE CHILDREN'S HOUR’ opened on Broadway in 1934, it was well-received by critics. However, it was banned in Chicago, Boston, and London. The Pulitzer Prize committee refused to consider the play for its reward due to the “shocking” subject matter.

An early movie of the play changed the relationship into an implied ménage-a-trois between the teachers and one of their fiances. Though many were upset with the forced changes in the story, Hellman, in her autobiographical work, said she was happy with the film because the subject of false accusation and gossip were the central issue of the story rather than the nature of the gossip.

In 1952, Lillian Hellman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She was so upset by the McCarthy witch-hunting that the same year she personally financed a revival of ‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR.’ The themes of secrets and lies and malice and persecution struck a high chord and led to additional praise for the work.

1962 saw the release of a more faithful film version of ‘THE CHILDREN'S HOUR’ starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Due to the controversial subject matter, the film was a direct challenge to the Hays Code, and, eventually, brought about a revision of the code to permit "tasteful treatments of homosexual themes."

The Beck production, under the able direction of Sarah May is good. The adults in the cast are extremely proficient. Kristie Lang and Jennifer Clifford are outstanding in their portrayal of the teachers. They weave their roles with the right amounts of spirit and frustration. Nicholas Koesters, as the fiancé, perfectly walks the difficult tight rope between emotional control and compassion. Mary Jane Nottage gives a wonderful portrayal of the air-headed, needy, self-involved aunt. Rhoda Rosen is marvelous as Mary’s manipulated grandmother.

The roles of the young girls are difficult to portray. The character of Mary Tilford, the manipulator, is extremely challenging. 15-year old Mary Tilford does a very creditable job as Helen, though she sometimes fails to add the necessary texturing to the role. This results in a rather one-key characterization. Several of the other girls lose concentration when they are not speaking lines, but, as a whole, the young actresses are more than acceptable.

Don McBride’s creatively designed set works well, in spite of some shoddy workmanship. May has included some cleverly choreographed set changes to add to the production qualities. Jeff Smart’s costumes are period and aesthetically correct.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE CHILDREN’S HOUR’ is a historically important play. Though somewhat dated in language, it is a play that conveys strong messages. The Beck production deserves to be seen.