THE CHILDREN'S HOUR
Shattered Globe Theatre
THE RITUAL ROOM
Shattered Globe Theatre
Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour is one of those 30s-style socially conscious melodramas in which essentially likable people smash up against an intolerant society and are destroyed. In this case the likable people are Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the headmistresses of the Wright-Dobie School. Their crime: being accused by one of their less stable students of being lesbian lovers.
Even today, especially in more benighted backwaters, such an accusation could prove fatal to a teacher's career. But in 1934, when the play premiered in New York, the mere mention of homosexuality made Hellman's producer skittish. "This play could land us in jail," Lee Shubert told Hellman, and he wasn't exaggerating. Eight years earlier New York police had closed down a production that dealt with the same subject and arrested the lead actresses. Happily, Shubert did nothing to prevent the play from opening, and The Children's Hour was a hit.
Fifty-nine years later Hellman's play remains remarkably powerful, in large part because it's so well constructed. It's tightly plotted like a good melodrama, but with a more relaxed story-telling rhythm and an eye for naturalistic character development--more in the tradition of Henrik Ibsen than David Belasco.
The villains in Hellman's story--lying teenager Mary Tilford and her homophobic grandmother--are not simple embodiments of evil but three-dimensional characters. Mary is by turns sweet and malicious, and her grandmother believes she's acting out of the purest motives. Likewise Hellman's heroes are not martyrs, but mere flawed human beings. Wright is too trusting, and Dobie loses her temper too easily--characteristics that ultimately prove their undoing. Hellman also wisely plays down the melodrama of her tale by setting the most charged moments--the slander trial, the parents' hysterical reaction to Mary's charge--either offstage or between acts.
But there's another reason The Children's Hour has aged so well. As Shira Piven points out in her director's notes, Hellman's very public private life gave the play additional resonance over the years. She revived it in the early 50s to protest the HUAC hearings--she and her longtime companion Dashiell Hammett refused to name names to the committee--and the play, like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, can be read as an allegory of sorts about the McCarthy witch-hunts, and so about all instances of mass hysteria and persecution.
Piven has given Shattered Globe's rich, multilayered production this larger historical context by framing the play with a pair of quotations from Hellman's work--a selection from Hellman's memoir Pentimento and a paragraph from her famous fiery letter to HUAC. In the wrong hands such a device might come off as heavy-handed, dry, or preachy. But to accompany the introductory quote Piven has cleverly devised a crisply directed dance sequence that serves to introduce the students at the school. Piven uses two more of these intriguing dance sequences during scene changes to give us brief glimpses into the students' emotional lives. For instance, just after Mary runs away from the school the other girls reveal the primitive chaos lurking in adolescent hearts by dancing wildly to a Nirvana tune.
Piven's direction of the adults in Hellman's story is considerably more traditional, though no less successful. Too old to dance, or perhaps too dignified, the two accused teachers are winningly played by Leigh Horsley and Linda Reiter, whose scenes together really crackle. Maya Friedler makes Mary's grandmother a case study in the banality of evil, affable and polite even at her most destructive.
Having seen only one other play directed by Piven, last season's unevenly acted adaption of four Chekhov plays at Strawdog Theatre, I was unprepared for this adroit production. Yet not a moment in the show rings false.
Sadly, the opposite is true of The Ritual Room, written by and starring Shattered Globe member Joe Forbrich. Meant to be a late-night offering of comedy and suspense, it isn't funny enough to be a comedy, and it's too predictable and long-winded to be very suspenseful.
Set in contemporary post-sexual-revolution America, the play concerns a womanizer named Drew (Forbrich) who runs afoul of Diana (Rebecca Jordan), whose husband (Doug McDade) has a novel way of disposing of his wife's lovers. I won't reveal how, though I'll say that he's an avid hunter and half-mad dabbler in paganism with some eccentric theories about the usefulness of human sacrifice.
Of course Forbrich's character ends up in the hands of this blood-thirsty husband halfway through the story, and most of the rest of the play takes place in his ritual room--with the exception of a scene in a local singles bar, where Diana picks up Drew's brother Billy and promptly drugs him and drags him to the ritual room. Anyone who can't guess how this story ends hasn't watched enough TV.
Most of the performances are far better than the play deserves. Forbrich and the always funny Steve Key earn the few laughs in the script the old-fashioned way, with pure actor's sweat. (Key is such a talented comic actor he could probably get a laugh playing Oedipus putting his eyes out.) And Jordan makes even the script's lamest lines seductive. In fact, only McDade sinks to the level of the play, mugging like crazy as the psychotic husband, overacting to a degree I would have thought impossible after his work in Holy Ghosts and Talk Radio.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gerardo Montemayor.