There's something about Mary. Something bad. For starters, she's spoiled rotten. She's also a bully. Worst of all, she's a congenital liar. The poison Mary Tilford injects into the private Massachusetts girls school she attends in The Children's Hour, Lillian Hellman's once-scandalous 1934 play that's being staged by the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts, metastasizes into a venomous evening of compelling theater. Director Tim Ocel has managed to elevate Hellman's skillful melodrama into operatic grandeur.
The play begins innocuously enough on a bright April afternoon at the Wright-Dobie School for Girls in rural Massachusetts. We meet the two idealistic owners, 28-year-old Karen Wright (Melissa Weyn) and her college chum Martha Dobie (Shaina Schrooten). Their dream of running a private academy has been realized; Martha's only concern is how Karen's impending marriage to a local doctor (Charlie Ingram) might disrupt the status quo. When Karen administers a dose of much-needed discipline to the willful Mary Tilford (Becca Andrews), the miscreant teen retaliates by telling her wealthy grandmother (Lauren Motil) that the two schoolmistresses are lovers.
By Act Three the lie has gone viral. The grandmother's callous rush to judgment cannot be undone. The striking scenic design by Myra Giorgi (hauntingly lit by Shelby Loera) transforms the schoolroom into a metaphorical prison cell, then into a courtroom dock where all the principal characters are judged — first by one another but also by the audience. The production is so involving that by the time it draws to its inexorable close, a viewer well might feel drained and exhausted. This is riveting theater.
The Children's Hour has been filmed twice, both times by director William Wyler. In 1936 Wyler almost walked away from the proposed movie when the script was rewritten to exclude the lesbian accusation. Hellman persuaded Wyler that because the play primarily was about "the power of a lie," the specific substance of that lie "was of secondary importance." The title was switched to These Three; the revised lie concerned adultery. Although the film was a critical success, Wyler remained unsatisfied. In 1961 he remade his own film and reinstated both the original title and the original lie. Despite its newfound candor, that remake was not well received.
But whatever the shortcomings of the film versions, the material remains effective onstage. Director Ocel has a firm grasp of the story he wants to tell and how he wants to tell it. This is patient direction that allows the performances to find their rhythms. Ocel ping-pongs from hysterics to quietude and back, imbuing a potentially dusty period piece with tragic dimension.
Indeed, as the action plays out, it's hard not to be reminded of another American tragedy. The portentous, slanted unit set, constructed of sturdy wooden planks, could be an effective habitat for The Crucible, Arthur Miller's 1952 drama about the Salem witch trials. The resemblance between the two plays is undeniable. Not only is Mary Tilford a precursor to The Crucible's cunning Abigail Williams, but many of the specific events in The Crucible — most notably, the arc of the memorable inquisition scene — might have been inspired by The Children's Hour. In his memoir Timebends, Miller recalls that Hellman attended The Crucible during its pre-Broadway tryout in Wilmington, Delaware. After the performance the two dramatists walked in silence for twenty minutes before Hellman finally said, "It's a good play." Perhaps during that long silence she was thinking to herself that her confrere's plot seemed strangely familiar.
Miller, of course, is one of America's iconic dramatists, and The Crucible has become his most-staged work. Hellman's fame has faded. Even sightings of her best-known script, The Little Foxes, are few and far between — which makes this splendid production of The Children's Hour even more to be treasured. This is a rare opportunity to see an enduring American play, performed astonishingly well.