‘The Children’s Hour’ at Port City Playhouse by Emily Cao

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FOUR STARS
Port City Playhouse presents The Children’s Hour, the first production of their 2013-2014 Season: A Salute to the American Voice, an homage to distinguished American playwrights that bring unique perspectives on American culture.

L to R: Katelyn Wattendorf (Mary), Ellie Milewski (Evelyn), Cynthia Mullins (Peggy) and Jenni Patton (Rosalie). Photo by Michael deBlois.
L to R: Katelyn Wattendorf (Mary), Ellie Milewski (Evelyn), Cynthia Mullins (Peggy) and Jenni Patton (Rosalie). Photo by Michael deBlois.

The Children’s Hour, written by the Lillian Hellman in 1934, embodies the theme of how lies and gossip – innocently planned as they may be – can quickly spread and grow into an all-consuming chaos that destroys lives. The story is set at an all-girls boarding school in Lancet, Massachusetts in the ‘30s, where a young student’s accusation against the two headmistresses for having a lesbian affair spirals out of control and results in drama, deceit, and tragedy.

Two headmistresses and long-time friends, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie – played by Michelle McBeth and Chelsey Megli, respectively – are hardworking and industrious women who run a girl’s boarding school in a small Northeastern town. There, they educate their young charges with the help of Martha’s elder aunt, the theatrical but slightly deluded Mrs. Lily Mortar (Robin Ann Carter). Things are going well for the pair, who have finally achieved their dream of opening a school, and for Karen in particular, who is soon to be married to local physician Dr. Joseph Cardin (Ric Andersen).

However, things change dramatically when a difficult and manipulative student, Mary Tilford (Katelyn Wattendorf), becomes upset with the headmistresses’ strict rules and retaliates by untruthfully telling her overindulgent and influentially wealthy grandmother, Mrs. Amelia Tilford (Carole Steele), that the two headmistresses are lovers. The grandmother and the town’s reactions lead to a tense lawsuit and the eventual destruction of the two headmistresses careers, relationships, and lives.

Amidst this heavy plotline are the strong personalities of the individual characters, whose flaws are very much laid open by the circumstances of the accusations. The instigator of the chaos is Mary Tilford, who has no trouble coming off as a belligerent, rebellious, deceitful, and spoilt young troublemaker thanks to the impressive acting chops of young Ms. Wattendorf. Throughout the play, she twists the ears of both her fellow peers and her grandmother, and seemingly spreads harmful lies ‘out of sheer boredom’. Mary’s sickly sweet tears as she “recounts” seeing the two headmistresses together is downright infuriating to the audience who can foresee the impact of her cruelly reckless doings. victims are headmistresses Karen and Martha, who, in this production, come off a little bit stiff in their portrayal, but their reserved stoicism draws the audience’s sympathy nonetheless. The resignation to their circumstances in one of the final scenes where the two confront their relationship is tangible.

The stars of the show, however, are the schoolgirls! All of them, including Mary are talented young actresses who bring believable innocence and a hint of deviousness to their performance. In particular, the scene when Mary manhandles young Evelyn (Ellie Milewski) and Peggy (Cynthia Mullins) through emotional and physical violence is quite powerful.

The production, directed by Mark McCarver and produced by Carol Strachan, makes an impressive first impression. The set design of Raedun de Alba is detailed beyond measure – era-appropriate furniture and props make up the stage while intricate and ornate décor is peppered around the set in the way of wall hangings, lamps, figurines, and trinkets thanks to the Set Dressing & Decoration of Becky Patton. Set changes are cleverly disguised as the schoolgirls moving around and chattering while carrying items on-and-off stage, and the small stage space – which could easily have been limiting – is well utilized to make the three different settings unique.

In addition, Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley’s Costume Design should be applauded for its high quality and realistic interpretation of ‘30s dailywear. From their first appearance onstage, the schoolgirls’ uniforms look fashionable, well-fitted, and high quality – the same characteristics that describe the ermine-fur shawl of Grandmother Tilford and Mrs. Lily Mortar’s red & white lace dress.

Grandmother - Mrs. Tilford (Carole Steele) and Mary (Katelyn Wattendorf). Photo by Michael deBlois.
Grandmother – Mrs. Tilford (Carole Steele) and Mary (Katelyn Wattendorf). Photo by Michael deBlois.

These kinds of details in the set and costume design and implementation are representative of the high quality production of Port City Playhouse. The greatest success of the play, however, is its ability to bring out the greater moral themes of the story – random cruelty, the destruction of others, the power of children – these are all felt forcibly by the audience as the lights dim over a lone victim.

In the words of Director Mark McCarver, The Children’s Hour leaves you pondering the question, Who is responsible, the children or the adults? Better yet, who are the adults in this situation, and who are the children?

Running Time: Approximately two hours and thirty minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Children’s Hour plays through September 28, 2013 at Port City Playhouse – 1819 N. Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA. For tickets, order them online.