It's been nearly eighty years since Lillian Hellman's 'The Children's Hour' made its shocking theatrical debut. Street Theatre Company's current production sees beyond the still all-too-taboo subject matter of an accused 'unnatural relationship' between two female teachers at a private boarding school to reveal the true crux of the matter: A little lie can ruin lives. With three performances left before the show closes its successful run, time is ticking on Nashville theatre audiences' chances to witness the still relevant drama, 'The Children's Hour'.
Having never read or seen the stage production of 'The Children's Hour' myself, my only point of reference prior to attending opening weekend of Street Theatre's current production rested in multiple viewings of the 1961 William Wyler-directed Hollywood adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, Miriam Hopkins and James Garner. Interestingly, Wyler's '61 film was a remake of his 1936 adaptation, 'These Three', which debuted in theatres two years after Hellman's play stunned Broadway audiences.
For Street Theatre's presentation, Cathy Street, the theatre's founder and Executive Artistic Director, takes on the added duties of directing the piece with the help of Charletta C.J. Jordan as Assistant Director. Together, Street and Jordan achieve the daunting task of not only staying true to the original piece, but simultaneously engaging a modern audience in a story that could easily seem dated and no longer relevant.
Thanks to their direction and the inspired casting of Jaime Janiszewski and Terra Buschmann as school teachers and best friends, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, Street Theatre's production is spellbinding from the moment spoiled, pre-teen troublemaker, Mary Tilford plants her first seeds of lascivious lies--to the final shocking moments of the play.
The style in which these two actresses approach the unraveling of their character's lives is fascinatingly unique. Buschmann's Martha is played weak and confused throughout the piece and her inevitable tragic end really comes as no surprise. I did find it interesting that during the 'Talk Back' following the performance I attended, Buschmann revealed that she never really felt that there was any truth to the rumor spread about the two women within the context of the play. I for one have always felt that there was indeed a bit of truth to Martha having feeling for her best friend and would like to have seen it played that way, if for no other reason that to be able to witness the subtle difference that mindset would have given the portrayal. Nonetheless, Buschmann's Martha garners sympathy as a woman whose life is changed forever by the viciousness of a little girl.
These 'Talk Back' session, which typically occur on the second night of one of Street Theatre Company's runs, are an excellent opportunity for the audience to get a bit of insight from the actors. I highly encourage theatre fans to CLICK HERE and check out upcoming 'Talk Back' post-performance events at upcoming Street Theatre performances.
Janiszewski's Karen, on the other hand, is played with such emotion it's mesmerizing to watch. Early on in the story, Karen is blissfully happy to not only be teaching at a successful school with her longtime best friend, Martha, but also elated to be engaged to her boyfriend, Joe Cardin (affably presented by John Mauldin). One of only two male actors in the play. As the lie begins to take its toll on Karen, Janiszewski somehow emotional and physically manifests this grief with such realness that by play's end, she seems truly drained of all emotion and hope, appearing to have aged before the audience's eyes.
At the helm of all this despair and upset, in the role of Mary Tilford is young Haley Covington. II first saw Covington at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre a few years back as everyone's favorite hard-knock orphan, 'Annie'. As Mary, Covington steps out of her comfort zone to play this truly twisted role with such mischievous moxie that I'm sure she'll want to pursue darker roles in the future.
The young actresses who portray Mary's friends/victims include Faith Davenport, Sky Dupree, Zoe Garner, Elizabeth Ponder, Erika Skelton and Stella London. Young Paige Glasser, as Rosalie, is another sympathetic character as yet another focus of Mary's schoolgirl bullying. In true melodramatic fashion, Rosalie, as it turns out, isn't as innocent as everyone might think.
It was also interesting to hear the young cast members speak on the fact that what seemed most shocking to them should this story be set in the present, was not the supposed relationship between the two female leads, but rather that the bullying and lies of Mary was more of an issue that would need to be addressed. Proving our up-and-coming youth are much more open minded that theatre audiences of days gone bye.
Other cast members who deserve mention include Deanna Glasser as Lily Mortimer, Martha's Aunt. Glasser's self-absorbed Lily adds much needed bits of humor to an otherwise very heavy night of theatre. Additionally, Aunt Lily also serves to add to the troubles between the two leads, as she's a bit of a gadabout and therefore a burden to her niece.
Joyce Jeffries, as Amelia Tilford, Mary's Grandmother, is splendidly regal and overbearing. Despite her character seeming a bit of 1930's stereotypical sensibilities, her prejudices are sadly still relevant today. Completely off topic: If I ever produce 'Gilligan's Island: The Musical', Jeffries is my Mrs. Howell, but I digress.
In addition to excellent acting all around, director Street cleverly utilizes Street Theatre Company's Music Director Rollie Mains talents in their production of 'The Children's Hour' by having the multitalented composer and musician create a subtle but hauntingly effective sore that carefully transitions the action from scene to scene. Unlike the typical-for-1960s-Hollywood overwrought film score by Alex North, Mains' solo keyboard enhances the drama of the play without over-powering.
Street Theatre Company's 'The Children's Hour' concludes its run with performances Friday and Saturday, September 20 & 21 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 22 at 5 p.m. CLICK HERE to purchase tickets.
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