Two schoolteachers accused of lesbianism at an all-girls boarding school cannot escape the onslaught of lies encircling them in Lillian Hellman’s provocative, rarely staged 1934 drama “The Children’s Hour,” excellently presented by Wright State University under the delicately firm direction of Marya Spring Cordes.
Karen Wright (Katie Post) and Martha Dobie (Haley Knuth) are shocked to the core when troublesome 12-year-old student Mary Tilford (Dana Bixler) tells her stern yet doting grandmother Amelia (Megan Valle) what she thinks she heard about their behavior behind closed doors. As Mary’s vicious falsehoods spin out of control, Karen’s engagement to good-natured Dr. Joseph Cardin (Zac Pruett) is put to the test while an infuriated Martha ultimately faces a harsh reality.
Hellman’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated script, inspired by an 1810 incident at a school in Edinburgh, Scotland, is very impactful but overlong and a bit stodgy. There’s also a peculiarity in the climax some might find terribly cold or downright humorous depending on one’s mood. Nevertheless, the keen perspectives Hellman presents from bullying to intolerance to same-sex desires to the power of manipulation are truly relevant (and Arthur Miller-esque) in the wake of current societal and political strife.
Post and Knuth are heartbreaking and emotionally savvy, giving subtle insight into the depths of Karen and Martha’s relationship without suggesting anything more than friendship. In fact, notice how this talented duo beautifully consoles each other with a blanket in Act 2, a visual that speaks volumes in its warmth and sensitivity. The spiritedly vindictive Bixler, the epitome of a spoiled brat on the verge of utter psychosis, is a tremendous force to be reckoned with as Mary orchestrates her madness. The very endearing Pruett effectively conveys Joe’s loyalty to Karen and his heartfelt understanding of her deep bond with Martha. Valle, a skillful chameleon memorably dynamic last summer as the Mute in Columbus’ Short North Stage’s “The Fantasticks,” marvelously grasps Amelia’s elderly austerity as well as her pivotal uncertainty when faced with Mary’s wild claims.
The strong cast includes Caitlin Shiner as Mrs. Lily Mortar, Brynnan McNeill (terrific opposite Bixler) as naïve Rosalie Wells, Madeline Musico (eavesdropping with “Downton Abbey”-style finesse) as Amelia’s maid Agatha, Heather Cooperman as Peggy Rogers, Rachel Woeste as Evelyn Munn, Taylor Patrick as Lois Fisher, Drew Longmore as Helen Burton, Kayli Modell as Catherine, Celia Arthur as Janet, Donnasia Allen as Leslie, and Grant Measures as Grocery Boy.
Cordes’ first-rate artistic team includes scenic designer David J. Castellano (projections heighten his fine work smoothly depicting altering locales), lighting designer Jennifer Watson (evocatively incorporating shadow as the story grows bleak), costumer Naomi Reisner (supplying attractive period attire), and sound designer Rachel Haas.
In addition, it’s significant to note “The Children’s Hour,” filmed in 1961 starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, was the subject of one of the first landmark court cases to address censorship of gay and lesbian subject matter. The show was to play Boston after its acclaimed Broadway run but was banned by the city’s public censor because of its “lesbian content.” In 1936, the play’s producer and the American Civil Liberties Union partnered to challenge the ruling in federal court, marking the A.C.L.U.’s first “gay rights” case and prompting censorship of gay-themed content in the arts to become part of the national conversation.
“The Children’s Hour” continues through Feb. 12 in the Creative Arts Center Festival Playhouse of Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 100 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 students and seniors. For more information, call (937) 775-2500 or visit wright.edu/theatre-tickets. Patrons are advised the play is intended for adult audiences.