Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 1999
Watching the Drury Drama Team’s production of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play “The Children’s Hour” was a great learning experience for me. Usually educational theatre has a greater impact on the students than on the audience, but I found my eyes opened to a new way of making this show work.
Hellman’s drama centers on the accusations brought by one pre-adolescent girl that a lesbian relationship exists between the two young single women who run the all-girls boarding school that she attends. When it opened on Broadway in 1934 it was considered scandalous, and I hadn’t realized how much had to be cut and altered before Hollywood would touch it in the 1936 film version “These Three”. By today’s standards it is tame, but not much has changed. Young people who discover that they are homosexual still commit suicide in alarming numbers, and murders like the Matthew Shepard case still make the headlines.
What surprised me about the Drury production was its complete lack of subtlety. Everyone on the stage played their characters in broad, over-the-top, melodramatic style – to the extent that early in the performance I wanted to storm the stage yelling “No, no, no! Not like that, like this!” I think my initial reaction was based on a fear that the young actors could not sustain that level of emotion for the entire evening. I was wrong. And it was by their ability and willingness to finish what they had begun that they won me over.
I was particularly struck with Lis Salerno as Mary Tilford, the child who makes the accusations. Salerno is a ball of fire on the stage, so you are don’t have a choice but to love her or hate her. From the moment that you see her, racing outside the window, she is a force to be reckoned with. I am used to seeing Mary played in as a more devious and bone-chilling kind of evil. Salerno is just one great big diabolic St. Bernard, energetically slobbering psychotic evil all over everyone. This makes it a little hard to believe that her family has never noticed that something is wrong, but it works because everyone else on stage is just as busy being over-the-top cute, or good, or jealous, or flamboyant.
When I compare Salerno to a St. Bernard, I am comparing her energy. One reason that she, as the only senior in the cast, can get away with playing a 12 year old girl is that she is petite to the point that her feet don’t touch the ground when she sits in a chair.
I was amused to see how all of these young women, aged 14 to 18, stretched to play girls only a few years younger than themselves. I was also amused by the school uniforms and the bloomers. I went to an all-girls school and wore a very similar navy blue uniform for 13 years, and, believe it or not, the girls school across the street from us required their students to wear bloomers (this was in the 1960s and 1970s – I am not THAT old!) Except for the lace on the edges, the bloomers were pretty much what I remember.
I enjoyed Kristin Tatro’s mature and centered performance as Karen Wright, one of the two accused teachers. I found Cathy Cooper as her counterpart, Martha Dobie, a tad-bit too soap opera scenery-chewing for my taste, but there is no doubt that she turned in a thoughtful and emotionally charged performance. In fact, that is the one really striking thing about the Drury Drama Team under the direction of Len “Doc” Radin – everyone has worked very, very hard on this production and everyone on that stage is giving everything they’ve got. It is very impressive.
Also impressive is the set by Ron and Tiger Waterman. The Drury stage is enormously wide, and the Watermans have created a realistic set to fill that unrealistically shaped performance space. It is well lit by Caitlin McConnell.
Two additions that Radin has brought to the show are a little song, sweetly sung by Carmelita Williams before the curtain rises, and a fine piano performance by Katie-Rose Radin as the set is being changed between the first two acts. These sudden examples of real talent from real adolescent girls (not the overly cute characters on the stage) are a welcome break from the extreme emotions of the play.
This is a production that deserves your attention, and I hope that you will go. I know that I will be thinking and talking about the performers and this production for some months to come. And when you see as much theatre as I do, it takes quite a production to capture my attention.
The Drury Drama Team production of Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” runs November 18-20 at 7 PM in the Drury auditorium, 1130 South Church Street in North Adams. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Call the school at 413-662-3240 for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999