For a play written nearly a century ago, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, currently being performed by the Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi under the direction of David Ralphe, remains remarkably relevant.
Set in a New England boarding school for girls run by close friends Martha Dobie (Dawn Michelle) and Karen Wright (Rebecca Angel), the play opens with the girls’ half-hearted recitation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. As supervised by Martha’s dotty Aunt Lily Mortar (Leslie Upson), the girls engage in banter, bored readings from the play and regular gossip. When Mary Tilford (Delilah Shafer) arrives with flowers in hand, she is confronted by Lily and the girls about where she has been for the last hour. Truthfully, Mary has been picking flowers, wandering the schoolyard and avoiding class. When she feigns sickness to avoid confessing, Dr. Joseph Cardin (Alec Reusch), who is also Karen’s fiancé, is called to examine her. When Joseph says there’s nothing wrong, Karen and Martha must decide her punishment and whether to continue putting up with Mary’s antics.
Meanwhile, foolish Aunt Lily has been frustrating Karen and Martha. When two girls overhear a heated conversation between Martha and Lily, they share bits and pieces with the other girls. Mary pushes Peggy (Noa Levy) and Evelyn (Jenna Laurén Romo) to spill the beans. The girls, in turn, push back at Mary.
Irked by the treatment she receives from the girls and the school’s directors, Mary decides to run to her grandmother’s house. To avoid going back to school, she shares a rumor with her grandmother, Amelia Tilford (Kathleen Silverman), about unseemly behavior between Karen and Martha. While Amelia is at first skeptical, she has no qualms about sharing this bit of gossip with others.
As rumors go, this one is vicious and causes parents to swoop in and take their children home. Karen and Martha are left to pick up the pieces. Even Joseph wonders if there’s any truth to the gossip.
It’s not hard to picture this scenario in a modern setting, especially when American politics, culture and religion seem to be at odds with each other, as online chat sites feed the public a constant barrage of speculation and disinformation.
In the play, it’s 1934, but as we sit in the audience and watch, it might as well be 2023. Smartphones, the Internet and social media abound, and even if the decades are spread out, humans haven’t changed much. They still talk among themselves in a closed orbit. They don’t bother to fact check. Most of all, they revel in bad news.
More important is the issue at the heart of the play. What constitutes a woman’s friendship with another woman? Where is the dividing line between love and sexuality? If you think Hellman hasn’t given this considerable thought, wait until the ending, when Karen, Joe, Lily, Martha and Amelia dust it up and leave blood, sweat and tears on the floor.
Hellman’s tight script questions a slew of so-called community standards, scruples, religious qualms and basic human respect. It’s called The Children’s Hour, but the play’s impact is adult and disturbing. Furthermore, in an age where women’s rights are being questioned, it reminds us that whether it’s 1934 or 2023, women must still fight to be heard and choose to freely live their lives.
This is a bold production for a community theater to tackle. You must ask yourself, would they be able to do this in the Midwest or South? Would some communities tolerate this as a local theater production?
The Children’s Hour runs through June 4 at the ARTSPACE Black Box Theatre, 2956 School St., Simi Valley. Reservations can be made by emailing email@example.com. For more information, visit www.actorsrepofsimi.org/about-us/artspace-black-box-theater.