Before Lillian Hellman’s drama settled into comfortable semi-obscurity as a brittle melodrama catalogued in literature anthologies, it was quite a piece of work. The play catapulted her career as a young writer in 1935 and was dogged by controversy over the course of decades, two film adaptations and several high-profile revivals. Hellman’s well-known assertion that The Children’s Hour was “really not a play about lesbianism, but about a lie” did little to combat the hullabaloo back then, but changing times saw the drama settle benignly into the realm of high school productions and acting scene study. There’s plenty for hungry actors to chew on: In 1930s New England, two teachers, Martha and Karen, and their small private school for girls are devastated when a vindictive student builds a lie with “an ounce of truth,” accusing them of being lovers. A lawsuit is lodged (mirroring the true story from 19th-century Scotland on which Hellman based the play) and relationships—and lives—come undone.
Director Derek Bertelsen wisely sidesteps the play’s vintage baggage and scenery-chewing potential and focuses on the action on stage, aided by an austere, intimate in-the-round staging and truthful performances. Britni Tozzi and Whitney Morse portray the teachers’ descent from indignation to anguish with clarity and rawness, and you won’t easily forget the delighted malevolence in Nora Lise Ulrey’s eyes as her Mary bullies, manipulates and, finally, destroys.
It’s a surprisingly engrossing two-and-a-half hours, and very well-paced. While The Children’s Hour clearly fits Pride’s mission to put LGBT themes onstage (and film), the production doesn’t imbue the play with a 21st-century sensibility, and even manages to contend with Hellman’s questionable introduction of shame in the suffering in the play’s third act. We are simply watching what happened to people when they were accused of being what was considered “unnatural” in the past. And there is a lot to learn from that. This play may be about a lie, but the reverberations of the ounce of truth in it continue to be felt eight decades later.