A Concise Reality In Script
One of the things I love about theatre is the elegantly intricate simplicity of it all. You’re seeing a whole reality live out its entire lifespan onstage in about 2 hours or more. Everything’s there and then it’s gone until they set-up for the next show. Another, slightly different reality lives for an entirely different group of people and the show continues its run.
The Children’s Hour was evidently an exercise in this for playwright Lillian Hellman. In the early 1930s, she was reading scripts for MGM when she met hardboiled mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and promptly fell in love with the guy. She had been unsuccessful in writing a play with American literary critic Louis Kronenberger. Hammett suggested that she write something based in fact. He had been read about an incident in Scotland in 1810 in which a student named Jane Cumming accused her schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, of having an affair. Students were rapidly pulled out of the school and the teachers were ruined.
Hellman transplanted the story to America and got to work...essentially teaching herself to write a play by following the events of an actual real-life drama. Hellman got a meeting with a Broaq\dway producer who read over Hellman’s sixth draft of the play. He liked it. It was produced. (The first play she’d ever written no less.) Writer Paddy Chayefsky considered it to be one of the most carefully-crafted pieces ever written. He learned play structure by copying the entire script by hand. It really is marvelously constructed. Hellman weaves complexity in a way that makes it really easy to digest without appearing to be to oversimplified. It’s a tiny, little reality which speaks to very big issues which echo out into today.
A Tiny Reality Beneath Wisconsin Avenue
This month, The Outskirts Theatre Company stages a production of that tight, little drama about big things. The delicious, little dichotomy between a tidy, tiny little two-hour drama about lies, desires and subterfuge resonates really, really well on one of the smallest stages in town in the basement of the Brumder Mansion.
The Brumder has a great presence for a drama set in a boarding school in the early 20th century. Set & Props Coordinator Robert Sharon has brought together a few remarkably concise spaces for the action to play-out on. The subterranean stage at the Brumder can feel like a shoebox, but Sharon and company really make it feel a lot more open than it actually is with a few clever tricks here and there.
It’s quite difficult to hide much of anything in a space that small. I found myself sitting in the front row right next to a desk at which one of the teachers worked. Sit right there and you’re conversationally close to the character. Samantha Paige goes about the daily work of co-managing a boarding school little aware that it’s all going to come crashing down around her...and it all feels so natural. We get a feeling for something below the surface in her performance...things that she’s going to have to come to terms with. Paige does an excellent job of delivering on that without amplifying it too much. Paige has great finesse in such a small space.
Prior to this moment, Brittany Boeche is wryly comic as a retired actress teaching the students. Director Dylan K. Sladky has done a remarkable job of fostering a restless primary school classroom without a single student at a desk. They’re all sitting around a chair and a number of girls in uniform fidget about. It’s very vivid. . . at least partially because a number of students are played by actual school kids. A casual stroll through the program reveals a cast of students who are actual students. Ellie Boyce is starting 8th grade next year. KyLee Hennes is a junior. Katrina Liberman is a sophomore. Youth is very, very difficult to fake on the small stage. A cast that includes actual students in and around the edges does a lot to sell the atmosphere even if the more prominent characters are played talented actresses with a bit more experience like t he sweetly innocent Anna Lee Murray and the sweetly sinister Ashley Retzlaff.
Sadly Still Quite Relevant
Without giving too much away, Hellman chose for a darker ending than history did in Scotland. Things didn’t end well for Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, but they were much worse for Hellman’s protagonists. The play itself was subject to some controversy due to its subject matter. I would imagine there’s that lingering concern of corrupting youth with anything that isn’t heterosexual.
Presumably its perfectly okay for people to do whatever sinful thing they want when the doors are closed, but children need to be kept from such things. It’s sad that this is still considered scandalous or sinful in some circles. Earlier this month the House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that could allow adoption agencies to refuse gay couples based on their moral or religious beliefs. (...ugh...) Society seems to be moving forward towards acceptance even if those in power aren’t. The tragedy of the drama of The Children’s Hour may feel barbaric to modern audiences. It’s been over 80 years since the drama debuted. We’ve still got a long way to go.
Outskirts Theatre’s production of The Children’s Hour runs through Jul. 29 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, visit outskirtstheatre.org/tickets. A concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.