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.