Sunday, January 19, 2014

Outstanding Performances Add to the Lasting Power and Pertinence of 'The Children's Hour' -- ChicagoTheater Review

Theater Review

The Children's Hour
a play by Lillian Hellman
directed by Derek Bertelsen
Pride Films & Plays
Collaboraction, Pentagon Theater
at the Flatiron Building, Chicago
Thru February 9

I don't know what seems more astonishing, that The Children's Hour--a play about two teachers being accused of lesbianism by a student--was first staged 80 years ago or that it still seems entirely pertinent today.

While one hopes that those in the LGBT community are able to live their lives more freely and openly today, while encountering less bigotry, hatred and discrimination than likely existed in 1934--when homosexuality was more widely viewed as a sin, unnatural and was officially a crime in every U.S. state--one only has to look to the recent re-criminalization in India, bigoted comments by TV personalities and Russia's anti-gay laws to recognize that The Children's Hour surmises a controversy that is far from unthinkable in the 21st century.

Heck, in a single, 2-second Google search, I just found a current news story that sounds rather familiar to the play I saw on Saturday night for the first time. (I've also never seen the 1961 movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.)

So while with its group of privileged teenage girls at a boarding school, headed by the particularly devilish Mary--wonderfully played here by Nora Lise Ulrey, who pretty much owns the first act--The Children's Hour couldn't help but feel a bit akin to an episode of Gossip Girl, Lillian Hellman's brave script touches on many themes with acute contemporary relevance and import.

To think that she penned it--supposedly, per Wikipedia, with the help of her longtime lover Dashiell Hammett--almost 20 years prior to Arthur Miller's similarly-themed The Crucible, only adds to the accomplishment, activism and verve inherent in Hellman's first successful play. I find it interesting to note on Wikipedia that the Jewish Hellman had lived in Bonn, Germany for a period in 1929, but left with the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism, later writing "Then for the first time in my life I thought about being a Jew."

So she obviously well understood the damage that mere accusation can inflict, even for doing or being something that isn't actually wrong.

And especially in the character of Mrs. Tilford (quite believably enacted by Joan McGrath), who is Mary's grandmother and the one who publicly raises issue with the teachers' supposed affair, Hellman's script resists easy demonization or melodrama.

It's rather adept in the way we see Mrs. Tilford's initial recognition of and resistance to the spiteful utterances of her beloved granddaughter, and--with some deference to 1934 mores--is only doing what she truly believes is in the best interests of the children.

It's also telling in the way Hellman makes the effect of whispers, gossip and accusation the thematic gist for most of the play--which director Derek Bertelsen deftly references with a few ethereal scenes of silent pantomime amongst the students--and only broaches the question of whether the teachers, Karen and Martha (brilliantly portrayed by Britni Tozzi and Whitney Morse), are actually lovers late in Act 2.

I feel somewhat silly critiquing the narrative merits of an 80-year-old
play, but not only is Pride Films &
Plays presenting a new production of a work I've never noticed being staged in & around Chicago, but in introducing me to this important drama, PFP impressively demonstrates just how far-reaching top-notch theatrical talent is throughout the Chicago area.

The show's venue is on the 3rd floor of the Flatiron building in Wicker Park, where Milwaukee, North and Damen intersect. The in-the-round space within the Pentagon Theater has about 50 seats, with--even with The Children's Hour consistently listed for just $15 on HotTix--only about half in use on a Saturday night. And like me, a friend of Tozzi's, it seemed many in the crowd were there because they knew someone in the cast.

But I assure you this isn't a "Nice job, pal, you and everyone else were just swell" review graded on a curve. Another avid theatergoer who attended with me agreed that many of the performances, though likely given for little or no remuneration, were truly splendid in service to a first-rate play.

Certainly, I was thrilled to witness the truly wondrous work by Britni Tozzi, who winds up with mascara smeared all across her lovely face in grippingly embodying Karen's myriad emotions, particularly within powerful dialogues with fiancé Joe (Nelson Rodriguez, also quite stellar) and Martha.

But I was also immensely impressed by several others in the cast, including Morse, Ulrey, McGrath, Rodriguez, Michelle McKenzie Voigt (as Lily Mortar, Martha's aunt and a school employee) and Nathalie Mendez as Rosalie, the most prominent of the schoolgirls besides Mary.

I won't pretend I'm above putting in a plug for the estimable work of a friend--and feel it worth noting that Tozzi has been hailed elsewhere (including the Chicago Reader), impressively runs an African relief organization with her fiancé and allowed me to profile her here--but, especially at HotTix prices, you can take this recommendation completely at face value.

Even if you don't know anyone in the cast, you would be well-served to familiarize yourself with The Children's Hour and this excellent production.

This 1934 play reminded me a bit of a terrific--and newly Oscar-nominated--2012 Danish film called The Hunt, about a kindergarten aide accused of improprieties due to a lie by a student, who happens to be his best friend's daughter. Well worth your time.

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