By Jordan Wright (Photo, Michael deBlois)
When Lillian Hellman wrote “The Children’s Hour” in 1934, it was a very different time — or was it? Hellman was an original, a maverick whose antifascist writings branded her a communist. She was later summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee to inform on her fellow writers.
Her response to the committee revealed an early feminist who would defend her rights and those of others. In her writings, Hellman concerned herself with social issues of the day; in this drama, she points the spotlight on intolerance and fear mongering.
In Port City Playhouse’s latest production, a willful girl claims to have seen and/or heard — depending on her revisionist fantasies — a liaison between the two headmistresses at her posh boarding school. The cast includes nine schoolgirls, a daft aunt, a wealthy grandmother and her housemaid, and a doctor, who’s the fiancé to one of the headmistresses. The play is actually based on factual events that occurred at a Scotland boarding school for girls in 1810.
Mary Tilford is the original bad seed. “I’m always getting punished for everything,” she whines to her gullible grandmother in hopes of leaving school.
As she ratchets up her stories to make her case — “They’ll kill me. They’ve got secrets … funny ones.” — the old lady softens, believing her scandalous tale.When Mary spreads the vicious lies to all of the children’s parents, it brings about the destruction of the headmistresses’ reputations and that of their newly established school.
The story is gripping and, despite some uneven performances, a fine play that you may remember was turned into a movie in 1961 starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, with James Garner in the role of the doctor and cousin to Mrs. Tilford.
Katelyn Wattendorf is commanding as the evil-minded and manipulative Mary Tilford, a sociopathic bully who threatens and cajoles in equal measure. Jenni Patton, who plays Mary’s tortured schoolmate, Rosalie Wells, provides the perfect counterbalance with a convincing performance.
Michelle McBeth, playing Karen Wright, headmistress and fiancée to Dr. Cardin, and Chelsey Megli, as her cohort Martha Dobie, give nuanced performances as the accused women. Carole Steele, in the role of the unduly moralistic Amelia Tilford, contributes the right measure of grace and iron, while Robin Ann Carter, who was unsteady as the eccentric Mrs. Mortar, played it for laughs in flamboyant Auntie Mame style.
Unfortunately the slow pace in the second act threatened to derail the dramatic buildup. Hopefully the cast and crew iron out the kinks over the next week.
A clever set design by Raedun de Alba serves as a living room and classroom at the school and later, gussied up with lace and bric-a-brac, as Mrs. Tilford’s drawing room. Scenes with the girls reading aloud parts from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” lend credence to Hellman’s re-imagined setting at an all-girls school in Lancet, Mass., in 1934. Costume designs by Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting echo the prim school uniforms and dowager dresses and lace-up footwear of the day.
“The Children’s Hour” plays through September 28 at the Port City Playhouse at The Lab at Convergence, 1819 N. Quaker Lane. For tickets and information, visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.