The Children’s Hour Hits and Misses

Meg Dobbs as Amelia Tilford,
Serena Collins as Mary Tilford

By Brad Quinn
Photos By Elisabeth Ross

Iowa City – The Children’s Hour is a simple enough premise: in 1961 America, two women, teachers and headmistresses of a small private school for girls, are accused by one of their students of committing lesbian acts with each other. The resulting scandal threatens to destroy their lives and the lives of those who love them. Whether the accusation is true or not is irrelevant; it is the perception which matters.

It took me awhile after I sat down for me to put my finger on what seemed so out of place in this theater in which I have many times similarly sat down. The doors to the stage were closed. They are never closed before a show. As soon as I realized this, I was intrigued…what surprises were they hiding behind the doors, on the stage? When they finally opened the doors, it turned out to be relatively mundane, and yet quite surprising nonetheless: it was just a regular set, but a really well done set!

It was, in fact the best set I have ever seen on the Dreamwell stage. It was very well designed, and very solidly built, painted, and dressed. It looked every bit the part of a large room in a country house used for business and classes in a small boarding school. The space was incredibly well utilized; somehow managing to fit a couch, rocking chair, desk, table, bookcases, and several chairs without looking crowded even with the added dimension of a hallway entrance in the back. And this is a small stage, very often being overpowered by the set. In this case, the set design was as good as it could have been to use the space they had.

A few minutes after the unveiling of the set, we were treated to the opening of the show, a well-directed and well-executed piece of pantomime set to Doris Day’s “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.” It starts with one of the schoolgirls sneaking a peek at a copy of a scandalous book called The Art of Kissing and becomes an elaborate choreographed dumbshow between all the girls of the school engaging in bullying and teasing, finally ending with the entrance of their teacher. The scene ends, and then we launch into the show proper.

At this point, everything is set for a great theater experience. As I mentioned, the set was fantastic, and the opening was like one of those great title sequences from those old movies from the 60’s, which is not coincidentally when this play is set. In another nice touch, the set dressing included a nice little calendar on the wall behind the desk telling us it’s April 1961. Add to that the costumes, which were very period appropriate. The uniforms the girls’ wore made me think I was watching an episode of The Facts of Life, and the older women’s clothing was exactly on target.

Now we are introduced to the characters. There is a large cast of young girls, but it quickly becomes apparent that Mary Tilford, played by Serena Collins, is going to be the one to watch. Young Ms. Collins is a talent in the making and she gets a nice chance here to show it. She looks cute and innocent, but shows throughout the scene that Mary Tilford is manipulative, deceitful, and selfish. She takes control of the more weak-willed girls (well played by Rachel Hittner as Peggy and Lizzie Carrell as Evelyn) and tries to push the buttons of the adults as well to get what she wants.

The problem for her is that she has enough of a history of lies and dramatics that most of the adults are no longer fooled by her and she finds herself unable to escape punishment for her misdeeds, a situation which clearly annoys her. Karen, played by Aisling Beck, and Martha, played by Heidi Bibler, are two young women who have scraped together the money to buy a farm and open it as a private boarding school for girls. Martha’s aunt, Lily Mortar, is also a teacher there, though more out of pity than actual teaching ability. Lily is an overly dramatic ex-actress with a less than firm grip on reality played by Paula Grady, who is perfect in the role. Matthew Falduto plays Karen’s fiancé, Dr. Joseph Cardin, who is also Mary’s uncle.

By the end of this scene, Mary has run away from the school after bullying information out of Peggy and Evelyn, who overheard a conversation between Martha and Lily. Mary is intent on figuring out a way to use this information to concoct a lie that will convince her grandmother to pull her out of the school.

The second act introduces us to Mary’s grandmother and her housekeeper, Agatha. Agatha is played with exactly the right note by Valerie Keffala as yet another adult who sees right through Mary. With little enough dialogue Keffala makes it clear there is a long history between those two characters, and that she knows better than anyone how full of it Mary is. Meg Dobbs plays her grandmother, who seems aware that Mary is less than honest at times but is more easily swayed by her. Unable to find a lie that will satisfy her grandmother enough to get her out of going back to school, Mary finally accuses her two teachers of lesbianism. Shocked, her grandmother immediately pulls her out of school and calls the parents of the other students.

Serena Collins as Mary Tilford, Genevieve Wisdom as Rosalie Wells

This leads to the arrival of Rosalie Wells, another student and a rival of Mary’s, at the grandmother’s house. She is sent there by her parents until she can be collected and taken home. Rosalie is played by relative newcomer Genevieve Wisdom, and though she was an important player in the first act, Wisdom really hits her stride during this scene. Truly, she and Collins provide the highlights of the second act, which eventually becomes extremely reminiscent of the courtroom scene in The Crucible once Karen, Martha, and Dr. Cardin arrive to face their accuser. Mary uses leverage she has over Rosalie to force her to go along with her lie, and Karen and Martha’s fates are sealed.

The third act was, for me, when the story began to fall apart. It’s now 5 months later (as evidenced by the again clever use of the wall calendar) and we get to see the aftermath of all this. However, the actions and words of the characters seemed odd and lacking proper motivation, leading me to wonder what exactly we were supposed to take away from all this. Only Bibler and Grady seemed to understand the emotional framework of the scene, so it seemed a little uneven as well. That being said, Dobbs also contributed well to this scene and gave a much more believable performance than she had in the previous scene. Still, it was overly wordy and lacked a feeling of resolution, especially given that there were several points which seemed like perfectly good ends…and the play kept right on going.

The Children’s Hour has an interesting premise and the scenes involving the children are particularly well-written. It’s backed by some solid performances and good directing. Unfortunately, it is a little uneven at times and the third act seems to drag it down, losing focus and providing an unsatisfying resolution. All in all though, it’s a good evening’s entertainment, and if you can squeeze it in amongst all the other theater going on right now, give it a try.

The Children’s Hour runs through May 18. Visit dreamwell.com for instructions on reserving tickets.

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One thought on “The Children’s Hour Hits and Misses

  1. Correction: I deleted the line “It’s only been in the last 20 to 30 years that women have stopped wearing hosiery. In 1961 it seems unlikely that women of the class depicted in this play would all be bare legged.”
    It has been brought to our attention that the women were wearing nylons, which is appropriate for the period. We apologize for the error.

    – James E. Trainor III, Editor

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