Chicago Theatre Review
Out of the Mouths of Babes
The Children’s Hour – Pride films and plays
Kids should be believed unconditionally if and when they confide secrets to the adults they trust, right? In what would become her first hit play, Lillian Hellman examines the tragedy that results from a devastating secret and the subsequent gossip that follows. Ultimately it’s revealed that this secret is nothing more than a vindictive lie, but by then the damage has become irreversible.
Based upon a true incident in Scotland, Ms. Hellman’s 1934 play tells the story of two teachers, Karen and Martha, long-time friends who have worked hard to build a reputable private school for girls. One of their students is Mary, a spoiled young student who bullies, threatens, blackmails and even physically injures other students to get her way. After being caught in yet another lie Mary feigns illness for sympathy. When she’s punished for this she runs away to the home of her wealthy and influential grandmother, Mrs. Tilford. Despite the fact that Karen, the teacher who punished her, is engaged to marry Joe, Mary’s doctor cousin, the girl sets out to ruin the lives of both teachers. She lies to her grandmother, saying that the two women share a relationship that is “unnatural.” From then on Karen and Martha’s world begins to unravel.
Originally banned from production because it was unlawful to mention homosexuality on stage, Hellman’s drama eventually became a theatrical staple. In 1961 it was made into a feature film starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Hellman’s play is considered a groundbreaking drama because it not only shines a spotlight on the destructive effects of gossip and lies but it also dares to hold a mirror up to society’s reaction to homosexuality. Hellman’s play may even have inspired Arthur Miller in his own classic twenty years later, “The Crucible.” It’s believed that Miller wrote his play as an allegorical indictment of the McCarthy hearings and the resulting blacklists of accused communists. Set during the Salem Witchcraft Trials, Miller also wrote about some children’s accusations against the adults who displeased them. It’s very similar to the ruination of the two teachers caused by Mary’s personal vendetta.
Derek Bertelsen has done a great job of directing this play, keeping its integrity while focusing on its relevance today. The script could benefit from some careful trimming, especially in the final scene; but the power of this play is still present, solid and riveting. Also Bertelsen has smartly not allowed his production to become melodramatic, as might easily happen, and has condensed the three-act script into just two. All scene changes within the tiny theatre space are performed in full view by the young students. In addition, Derek Van Barham has choreographed the scene changes as a kind of primitive, ritualistic dance. The movements and gestures he employs highlight key events from the story, all eerily pantomimed in a silent tribal promenade.
Britni Tozzi and Whitney Morse are excellent in the roles of Karen and Martha, the two teachers accused of being lesbian lovers. Both actresses are natural and articulate, which works well in this small, in-the-round theatrical space. The two are convincing as life-long friends working toward the same goal. Nelson Rodriguez as Dr. Joseph Cardin, Karen’s financee, brings a warmth and empathy to his role, appearing comfortable in the company of so many young ladies. Tasheena Miyagi and Nathalie Mendez are particularly good as students Evelyn and the much-bullied Rosalie Wells. And while Nora Lise Ulrey’s Mary sometimes comes off as a little too forced and artificial, she has many good moments as the spoiled princess who prides herself in the power she wields over others. Both Michelle McKenzie-Voigt, as Martha’s melodramatic Aunt Lily, and Joan McGrath as Mary’s wealthy, socially conscious grandmother, Amelia Tilford, bring maturity and lots of theatrical experience to their respective roles.
It’s always exciting to revisit a theatrical classic that is still meaningful and powerfully speaks to the human condition. Lies, gossip, bullying and scandal are, unfortunately, just as prevalent and damaging now as when Lillian Hellman wrote this play. PF&P can be proud of this production because it’s both artistic, entertaining and still very relevant.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 9-February 9 by Pride Films & Plays at Collaboraction, 1579 N. Milwaukee, Chicago.
Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets by calling 800-838-3006 or by visiting www.brownpapertickets.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.