The Children’s Hour is hugely compelling
By Lillian Hellman. Directed by Alison Raine. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. At Jericho Arts Centre on Thursday, July 16. Continues in repertory until August 6
“A little girl tells a lie and you see yourself for the first time.”
Written in 1934, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour is a provocative and ambitious work, particularly for summertime audiences. The play is long, and it’s all about the action and inaction of language rather than anything physical or visual.
But the reward for tucking oneself inside a dark venue on a beautiful, sunlit night is that Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Children’s Hour is largely riveting and heartbreaking, with only a few missteps along the way.
The story centres on teachers and best friends Karen and Martha, whose lives are upended when their conniving pupil, Mary, spreads a rumour that her instructors are secretly lovers. The consequences of Mary’s lies—parents yank their children from the school, a broken engagement, a coming out, and a suicide—are devastating.
As Mary, Laura Geluch is a truly convincing psychopath-in-the-making, with only a couple detours into melodrama. Stephanie Elgersma and Alicia Novak have a wonderful chemistry as Karen and Martha, respectively. Novak’s whole body conveys the emotional dance of Martha’s conflict as she confesses her love to Karen: the tentative hope, unburdened relief, and self-loathing are visceral. Later, Elgersma’s steely, grief-stricken rage is a thing of beauty; there’s incredible bite in every scathing thing she says to Mary’s rich grandmother, Mrs. Tilford, played with appropriate chilly precision by Barbara Ellison.
The only false note is Martha’s aunt Lily, a character that is written as an over-the-top, aging actress who’s meant to be insufferable. But Rebecca Walters’s portrayal is so broad and distracting that it, too, is insufferable. She could have scaled back by half and still delivered what the role demanded.
Hellman had a keen understanding of the worst aspects of human behaviour: entitlement, righteousness, and self-absorption, to name a few. Later in her own life, Hellman was accused of plagiarism and lying; she retaliated by ruining her accuser’s career. “A little girl tells a lie and you see yourself for the first time”: in writing this play, Hellman revealed who she was—maybe even to herself—but she also left a map for future audiences whose rawest truths are reflected back in the fragments of these characters’ messy lives.
It’s not an easy play, but Ensemble Theatre Company revels in the challenge, crafting an occasionally uneven but hugely compelling and nuanced work that needs to be seen.
Jul 18, 2015 at 10:29pm
Thanks for spoiling the plot! Great way to write a review -- leave potential goers wanting naught.
Jul 19, 2015 at 11:32am
I saw this play a few nights ago and disagree with almost everything written in this review. I question the writer's knowledge of live theatre and performance. The actors playing Karen and Rosalie, had subtle and nuanced performances which were completely undermined by the other actors on stage. The actor playing Martha looked uncomfortable on stage and in her own body, her line delivery was strange and sometimes I wondered if she even understood what she was saying or what the play was about. Her performance was overly simplistic for my taste.
The actor who played Mrs. Tilford was tragically terrible. She wasn't solid on her lines and in the end even resorted to a melodramatic prat faint. I say pray, because I didn't for second believe her performance. In fact, none these performances seemed to come from a place of honesty so I felt nothing for any of them.
There is nothing worse than going to see a play and feeling nothing about any of the characters on stage. At the end of the play the audience should be shocked, mortified, even sad, I kept thinking about having to go to the bathroom. It was a surprising directorial choice(?) to have Karen seem completely immune to the horrific scene off stage in the final act. The audience can't see the horror of what happened off stage so their only gauge is the reaction of the actors on stage.
In the above review, the actor playing Martha's aunt is raked across the coals. I found her delightfully over the top and I quite enjoyed her scenes as she brought an energy to the stage that was frightfully lacking all evening. I agree that she didn't root her performance in much honesty and allowed her over the top demeanor to quash a truly interesting character under layers of velvet and beading but hers was not as terrible a performance as the above reviewer seems to think.
All in all, this is a well written play that needed a strong director with new ideas to make it relevant for a modern audience. I expected more from ETC as I have very much enjoyed some of their shows in the past and feel that many of the actors on stage were not up to the challenges that this piece presents. If you have to chose between seeing Children's Hour and the other contemporary offering at ETC this year, Frost/Nixon, trust me, go see Frost/Nixon! You won't be dissapointed.