The stage was littered with simple 20th century furniture, the perfect replica of a classroom. However, the most important and imposing part of the set was spelled out. Literally. Large wallpapered letters spelled the word “MERCY” across the stage. Most of the time, they blended into the background, acting as walls for the set. However, by the end of the show the word served as a strong contrast from the terrible events occurring on stage. It was a haunting reminder of what the characters so desperately needed.
“The Children’s Hour” by Lillian Hellman is a play with a long and controversial history. Based on real events in 1810, the play first debuted on Broadway in 1934. The plot focuses on the story of two school teachers, Karen Wright (Amanda Sherrod) and Martha Dobie (Jessica Boyles), wrongly accused of being in a lesbian relationship by a student. The rumor is wholly untrue as Karen is straight and happily engaged to a man named Joe (Bowen James Abbey). However, it is also slowly revealed that Martha does in fact have feelings for Karen, though she never acts on them. Performances of the play took place in the Belk Theater of Robinson Hall from Feb 22 to the 26.
The show was split into three acts, each showcasing a different time period and part of the plot. The first act was set in 1934, the year the show premiered on Broadway, and establishes the backstory of the characters. It sets in motion the events that eventually lead to the downfall of Dobie and Wright. The second act was costumed as if the characters were in 1810, when the events of the story originally took place. It is here that the teachers are wrongly accused and events turn for the worse. The final act has the characters in present time, wearing jeans, sweaters and leggings. By putting the characters in modern clothes, the bold statement is made that this play and the events that occur can still happen today, making it more relevant and connecting the audience to the events on stage. In turn, it makes the tragic and explosive finale all the more painful.
“The Children’s Hour” had an especially strong ensemble cast of students, necessary for a show with this heavy and dark of a plot. However, there were two actresses that especially stood out. The first was Brianna Abbate in the role of Mary Tilford, the young girl who accuses her teachers of an “inappropriate” relationship. Her emotions changed with the flip of a coin. One second, she was showcasing a sweet and innocent side to her grandmother. The next, she would transform into a mean, manipulative and honestly intimidating villain. Abbate was brilliant, I cannot imagine a more convincing portrayal of this role.
The other standout was Jessica Boyles as Martha Dobie. The part has a large emotional range, something that really showcased Boyles’ talent. Dobie is both infatuated with her best friend and tortured by it. She feels both love and guilt. All of these emotions read through Boyles’ facial expressions and voice. It was heart wrenching to watch. Other strong performances came from Amanda Sherrod as Karen Wright and the inspired casting choice of Jon Lamar as Mrs. Amelia Tilford, which was funny at first and quickly became convincing.
I went into the production wholly unfamiliar with “The Children’s Hour.” I had no idea what its plot or themes were. However, although the events of the play most certainly were not pleasant, the audience experience was. An exceptionally talented ensemble cast, daring script and interesting set design all combined to create a strong performance. The characters and story stay with you, even after the final moments of the show echo over the audience. In a time of unknowns and “alternative facts,” it demonstrates just how much harm and destruction words, especially lies, can cause.