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The Children's Hour

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The Children's Hour, State Two Theatre Company, at Estonian House. Lillian Hellman said that her 1934 play about a witch-hunt at an exclusive girls' boarding school "really was not a play about lesbianism, but about a lie." Unfortunately director Alison Henderson takes her at her word (though theatergoers at the time didn't: the play was banned in Chicago, Boston, and London in 1936).

Here the relationship between the two teachers--Karen Wright (Leah Kuehmichel), who's about to be married, and Martha Dobie (Alana David), who might be a closeted lesbian--is so lacking in sexual undertones that the students' charge that they're sleeping together seems laughable from the beginning. Casting inexperienced child actors as the students doesn't help: the play is simply too weighty for them to carry the first two acts. An exception is Alexandra Smith, a ninth grader who plays Mary, the student who accuses the women of lesbianism out of spite. She's an appropriately vicious bully.

Overall Henderson is unable to create the claustrophobic atmosphere of hysteria that would make the tragic end both moving and inevitable. Michael Elder is uncertain as Joe, Karen's fiance; Beka is alternately dignified and inappropriately melodramatic as the moneyed grandmother who brings the women down. At least costumer Jessica Schulte nails the period; Wright especially looks like she stepped out of a women's magazine of the 1930s.

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