The Children’s Hour

Gillian Hellman’s 1934 play “The Children’s Hour” is about a spiteful child who, angry with the headmistresses at her girls’ school, seeks revenge by claiming to have evidence they are lesbians. This lie effectively shuts down the school and ruins the teachers’ lives.

I could say a lot more about the plot and still not reveal everything said in the various commentaries in the printed program for BYU’s production. One by director Laurie Harrop-Purser and Theatre & Media Arts Department Chair Bob Nelson, in particular, apparently seeks to stave off the complaints that the play deals with homosexuality — probably a necessary measure, unfortunately, and one that will likely do no good — and in so doing gives away what might have been an effective last-act twist. Also, dramaturg Amy Jensen’s essay makes reference to a “tragedy.” Bottom line? You’ll enjoy the play better if you wait until it’s over to read the program.

Spoiled, cruel Mary (a coldly evil Erin Chambers) has been punished enough by matronly Karen Wright (Lesley Larson) and extra-matronly Martha Dobie (Christina Davis) to get fed up and head home to Grandma Tilford (Karen Baird), who is blind to her granddaughter’s juvenile delinquency. To avoid going back to school, Mary concocts a story that Karen and Martha are lovers. Chaos ensues, complicating things between Karen and her fiancee, Joseph (Robert Gibbs).

Hellman always insisted the play was about the devastating effect of lying, and not about lesbianism. Fine, but this leaves the moral as: Lying can ruin lives. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but so what? That’s not much of an assertion. One question about this play is whether it’s still relevant in the year 2000, and it certainly is — but only in the sense that a play about the Law of Gravity or the ill effects of drunken driving or any other already-accepted truth would be relevant. Do people really need to be told that gossip can be damaging? And if they do, does “The Children’s Hour” make them think about it any more deeply than an Aesop’s fable would?

Troubling within the play is the ease with which Mrs. Tilford believes Mary’s outrageous statements. One wonders how someone not predisposed to disliking Martha and Karen could so readily pass along such damning stories about them.

Mary’s schoolmate Rosalie (Allyson Edwards) is roped into the lie, too, but for a childish reason that makes for an awfully slippery thing to hang the play’s action on. Whether it’s inherent in the script or a fault of this production, it simply doesn’t ring true.

The lead actresses exude dignity and propriety throughout, though the maudlin final moments force them to come across like husky-voiced soap opera divas as they take turns collapsing to their knees and sobbing. The play’s many good moments almost counteract the frequent awkwardness and melodrama, but not quite.

More plays about lesbians, that's what I want.

Didn't get a chance to mention it in the review, but I really liked Susan Keller in this play. I was hoping her role would be larger than it was, because she was doing so well playing the tamped-down, high-minded former actress Mrs. Mortar.