The Children’s Hour: Production Challenges Student Actors to Handle Sensitive Topics

The+Children%27s+Hour%3A+Production+Challenges+Student+Actors+to+Handle+Sensitive+Topics

Harry Paul

After a rumor that Ms. Dobie (juinor Sydney Ronis, left) and Ms. Wright (senior Julia Bain) are lesbians spreads throughout the town, Ms. Dobie realized that she actually did have feeligns for Ms. Wright, and has an emotional breakdown before ultimately taking her life.

Hannah Fagen and Minah Kim, Hannah Fagen, and Minah Kim

Lies. Pain. Destruction. Death. High school play?

Performed during the weekend of Nov. 10, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour tells a cautionary tale about the power of lies, and the importance of being true to oneself.

Best friends and coworkers, Karen Wright (senior Julia Bain) and Martha Dobie (junior Sydney Ronis) run a girls’ boarding school to which they have devoted their entire lives and savings.

The first few scenes of the play showed Wright and Dobie at the school with their young students, and were relatively uninteresting.

From the opening scene it is obvious, however, that schoolgirl Mary Tilford (junior Sabrina Brennan) is the quintessential bully and troublemaker. Armed with connections to the school’s major benefactor, her grandmother Mrs. Amelia Tilford (senior Delia Van Praag), blackmail for every student, and a knack for misbehaving, her potential for manipulation and destruction is manifold.

The downfall of the headmistresses starts when two schoolgirls overhear Martha being criticized by her aunt for her “unnatural” relationship. With this information, Mary Tilford, frustrated with the teachers’ punishing her for her misbehavior, runs away to her grandmother’s house. Simply wanting to get out of school, she concocts a rumor that her two teachers “have been lovers” which would devastate their livelihoods and lives.

Cue the drama and desperation.

Although the role may have warranted it, Brennan’s performance during the more intense moments of the play was over-dramatic, and, at times, almost terrifying.  Her mood transitions appeared sudden and unstable, creating an almost psychopathic element to her character, and eliminating any chance of the audience sympathizing with her.

“Mary is really evil,” said Brennan.  “She is the epitome of the school bully, and not only does she bully the children, but the adults as well.”

Genuinely disturbed by the supposedly lesbian teachers, Mrs. Tilford quickly spreads this information to Mary’s classmates’ families, who promptly withdraw their children from the school, effectively destroying all that Wright and Dobie have worked for in one night. Dr. Joseph Cardin (senior Liam Marsigliano) steps onto the scene to defend  his fiancee, Ms. Wright, from the false accusations of his aunt Mrs. Tilford. In this scene,  Marsigliano and Bain  emerged as two of the most believable and compelling actors in the play.

“This production has made me become a better actor,” said Marsigliano.  “I never thought I could do drama until this show. Even in past drama productions, I did not get it or I played an over-the-top performance. But this show has really taught me to branch out and do something bigger than comedy.”

Van Praag perfectly executed her role as the intolerant, stubborn old woman who could not see past her own convictions. Her voice cracked and croaked as she spoke louder and the argument intensified. She even perfected the small minute details of trembling hands when pouring whisky and turning the dial on her telephone in her worry and shock.

“It was a little strange, considering I’m quite liberal and very much support gay rights and marriage equality,” said Van Praag.  “Although, it was sort of fun to play a villain, someone who was so bigoted and closed minded, yet someone who strongly believed she was doing the ‘right’ thing.”

The teachers proceed to bring the false claims to court for libel, but with the testimony of another student blackmailed by Mary and the absence of the aunt who knew the truth behind the conversation that started it all, the teachers lose the case.

The play then cuts to the teachers sitting in their abandoned schoolhouse for an indefinite period of time. The rumor, having spread to the town, prevents them from ever entering the public again, as made evident by the grocery boy (freshman Max Miranda) who snickers and scoffs as he drops off the groceries. This time when the teachers are cooped up in the schoolhouse elicited  the most dramatic and emotional performances.

Bain made her character extremely relatable, and exuded loving care for all of the other characters throughout the performance. The audience understood and even felt Wright’s pain when she broke it off with Dr. Carden, for fear that he would never again trust that she hadn’t had romantic feelings for Dobie.

The best performance, without a doubt, came from Ronis. As Martha, Ronis had to play the part of a woman who realizes, to her horror, that she is actually a lesbian (although the word is never explicitly said in the play), and has been in love with her best friend all along. Ronis was natural and free with the expression of her emotions, and had an extremely convincing breakdown laden with guilt immediately preceding her suicide. Her fear and helplessness were palpable to the audience, and not a dry eye was in sight after hearing the sound of the shotgun.

“Sydney’s final confession scene is one that always brings tears to my eyes,” said director and science teacher Ms. Christine Nelson.  “She’s given her all since the audition, and she’s always been right there with her emotions. She gives a lot to that character.”

“I am thrilled that I was able to be in my favorite show and play my dream role. It’s tacky to say this, but it was a dream come true,” said Ronis.  “This gave me an opportunity to play a part that has a lot of depth and a lot of realism in it. It is a heavy situation, and I think that in itself being exposed to something like that and having to portray something like that is helpful as an actor.”

Bain’s reaction in disbelief to Dobie’s suicide created an instant tension in the theater. After this climax, the entrance of Mrs. Lily Mortar (freshman Elizabeth Muratore), completely unaware of the tragedy that had just occurred, was irritating to say the least. Her purpose in this play was the most ambiguous and only her selfishness and obliviousness reverberated throughout the play.

The play ends with the shameful entrance of Mrs. Tilford, who comes to exonerate the women. When she finds that Martha has committed suicide, she realizes the unmendable consequences of her rash actions. Bain boldly and indignantly makes the last statement of the play, condemning all those who caused this tragedy.

The theme and message of the play were difficult to understand, although this was not the fault of the actors. The central theme is obviously the destruction that lies and herd-mentalities can reap. However, the more controversial and interesting of the ideas covered, that homosexuality can be natural, is never developed. The topic of homosexuality was introduced in the play, but, could have been better explored by challenging the prejudices that ultimately caused Martha’s death.

When  Lillian Hellman first wrote The Children’s Hour in the 1930s, any mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal. Public acceptance of homosexuality has grown much larger since then, as is evidenced if only by the production of the play in a public high school. Members of Schreiber’s Gay Straight Alliance used this as an opportunity to spread its messages of accepting, understanding, and embracing Schreiber’s LGBT community, and set up a table in the lobby distributing pins, pamphlets and “ally” stickers.

“I think it really stays true to the fact of what it was like to be homosexual at this time and it brings this to light to people who don’t really know much about it or people who don’t care,” said freshman Alexandra DeAngelis who played Peggy Roggers, a schoolgirl bullied by Mary Tilford.  “When I first found out, I was a little surprised, but the cast is so great. We can definitely handle it.”

Aside from the actors’ performances, impressive set construction and quick transitions made the production shine, and helped the audience to adjust to a sometimes confusing storyline by clarifying where each scene took place and which characters could be expected to appear.  Crew members swiftly transformed the stage from the interior of the schoolhouse to Mrs. Tilford’s living room.

This show was a departure from the light-hearted comedies or cheerful musicals that frequent the Schreiber stage. The also lacked a key quality of many plays and musicals: a happy ending. What is quite notable, in fact, is that The Children’s Hour offered no solution to the destruction caused by Dobie’s concealing, and, ultimate disclosure of, her sexuality. Perhaps, instead of attempting to teach the audience a lesson about how to handle difficult sexual situations, this show offers a plea to remedy the social stigma and personal sense of wrong experienced by homosexuals. The Children’s Hour ended with an air of desperation and hopelessness, as Wright contemplates how her life was completely destroyed by the ill-will of a little girl.

“Of all of the shows I’ve done, this is probably the deepest thematically. This show in particular has a darker mood,” said Ms. Nelson.

Although The Children’s Hour featured more mature themes and wasn’t the least bit uplifting, the actors were able to bring a very powerful story to life.