Lillian Hellman’s 73-year-old drama The Children’s Hour was considered shocking when it premiered in 1934, and not so much for its story—in which two female teachers are accused of being lovers by one of the students at a rural boarding school for girls (giving Hellman’s play the American stage’s first-ever suggestion of lesbian love). But, perhaps worse, it dared to proclaim that innocent young children are not always quite so innocent.
The Children’s Hour is rarely staged these days, making 6th Street Playhouse’s choice to produce it either bold or baffling, or a bit of both. As directed by the ever-inventive Lennie Dean, this is an odd, frenetic production, with creepy musical interludes that sound like they’re coming from the music box of the damned—ominous sound effects more at home in a Friday the 13th sequel—and a key performance so unsubtle and one-note “Evil,” I wouldn’t have been surprised if levitation and green vomit were the next part of the act.
For all its fame and controversy, Hellman’s play is rarely performed these days, as its melodramatic tone and dated attitudes (strongly suggesting that physical love between two women would qualify as a genuinely disturbing aberration) have rendered the play difficult to make palatable for modern audiences. Still, Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse is boldly taking a crack at it anyway, with a highly promising cast (led by the consistently excellent Taylor Diffenderfer and Ivy Rose Miller as the accused educators) and director Lennie Dean at the helm.
Admittedly, I’ve never liked The Children’s Hour. I don’t care for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, either, for similar reasons: its tone is too easily turned toward melodrama and overacting, definitely a problem with some of supporting cast here. And its dated attitudes—strongly suggesting that physical love between two women would genuinely qualify as a disturbing moral aberration—are fairly troubling.
Yes, one could argue, as with Merchant, that The Children’s Hour is merely a product of its time, that it simply exposes how far we’ve come since 1934. Perhaps that’s true. But then, we’ve come a long way since minstrel shows, and I don’t see anyone doing blackface and contextualizing it with the same argument.
As for the production itself, it’s certainly entertaining, and Hellman’s writing still packs a wallop. The best thing about Dean’s staging—and a strong reason to see it, despite the above observations—are the superb, heartbreaking performances of Taylor Diffenderfer and Ivy Rose Miller as Karen and Martha, the accused teachers. Also excellent is Sheila Lichirie as the grandmother of Mary Tilford (Megan Fleischmann), the disturbed child whose calculated accusations bring a Crucible-like rain of fire down on Martha and Karen.
In a world where unfounded accusations have become cruel political tools, and where the border between “fake news” and “the truth” is growing fainter and fainter, the most troubling thing about The Children’s Hour is the realization that, in some ways, we haven’t actually come that far at all.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★