Haunting xylophones ring and sharp shafts of light illuminate a schoolhouse. Though the classroom appears normal, with a bookshelf, chalkboard, and chairs, this is not a typical children's story. A young girl kneels holding flowers, and as a disturbing smile contorts her face, an alarming sense of foreboding descends on McLean High School's production of “The Children's Hour.”
Based on a true story, Lillian Hellman's “The Children's Hour” is the troubling tale of a girls' boarding school in the 1930s in which one student, Mary Tilford, accuses the heads of school, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, of inappropriate relations. Mary then deviously spins an elaborate scheme in which to ensnare the two headmistresses, until the rumor ruins their reputations, friendships, and the lives of their loved ones. Premiering at the Maxine Eliot Theatre in New York City on Nov. 20, 1934, “The Children's Hour” received both critical acclaim and disdain because of its controversial material, yet today is a staple in the American drama repertoire.
McLean High School's production of this disquieting incident treated such an upsetting tragedy with maturity. Jordan Prather (Martha Dobie) personified the sensible headmistress. Her controlled voice and poised posture contrasted beautifully with her subtle hesitations when discussing her amorous feelings. Stutters and wringing of her hands belied her jealousy over Karen's relationship with her fiance, Dr. Joseph Cardin, while the desperate, hysterical edge bordering on a sob and agitated pacing adeptly conveyed the inner turmoil over her sexuality.
Anna Kate Womack's (Karen Wright) presence accentuated the intensity of the play, comfortable whether she engaged in a heartbreaking exchange with Joey Barth (Dr. Joseph Cardin), who helped ground the show through his rational tone and methodical movements, or a stark moment of silence and penetrating stare that left the audience breathless.
Others, such as Emily Lachow (Mrs. Amelia Tilford, Mary's grandmother) and Julia Luigs (Mrs. Lily Mortar, Martha's aunt) accordingly portrayed the alleged wisdom of age through Lachow's self-righteous bearing and Luigs's dramatic, all-knowing air. In contrast, Rachel Kulp (Mary Tilford) fostered a charged atmosphere through her chilling intensity. Her sulking face fluidly transitioned to low, menacing tones and overbearing stance, and just as easily to the false innocence of a confused child barely able to keep her body and voice from trembling in fear. Amanda Flores (Rosalie Wells) complemented Kulp's eerie character through her purposefully nervous shuffling and shuddering, while Carenna Slotkoff (Peggy Rogers) and Ariana Colder (Evelyn Munn) captured the demeanor of young girls whose enthusiasm turns to horror as their supposed friend backs them into corners and pulls their hair. In fact, the school girls as a whole appeared quite natural as they chattered comfortably and murmured anxiously about upcoming exams and social events.
Furthermore, technical aspects were impressive, including dresses of rich fuchsia and a gentle blue juxtaposed with drab brown; crowded bookshelves and neat office space easily changed into an immaculate living room, and then to a barren, jumbled classroom; appropriately period props, from the telephone to the black-and-white portraits; and amber lighting that was both clean and natural.
Jarring and distressing, the painful memory of grim expressions and bodies rigid with regret seared into one's mind by McLean High School's “The Children's Hour” should serve as a lesson that since words alone can destroy, one should use them wisely.