The Children’s Hour explores the destructive results of a lie at the Toronto Centre for the Arts
I am always of two minds when I am about to see one of my favourite plays, and so it was that I went into Encore Entertainment’s production of The Children’s Hour (playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Studio Theatre) half-ecstatic and half-terrified. Will they get it right? Will my guest be equally enamoured of it, or will they look at me in that funny way, wondering why I’ve subjected them to such rubbish?
Before I delve into the thick of it, let me first say this: I love Lillian Hellman’s play wholeheartedly. It chronicles the tragic aftermath of lie told in spite, and explores the consequences of such unpleasant human characteristics as selfishness, resentment, and self-righteousness.
Karen and Martha are close friends who run a school for girls. It is not merely an occupation for them; they’ve built the school from scratch with passion and dedication. Martha expresses an odd resentment at Karen’s upcoming marriage (to Joe); she fears it will take Karen away from the school and that it, and their friendship, will suffer. We later discover the secret that lies beneath this resentment. At the same time, they are having considerable difficulty with one of their charges—Mary.
I find Mary absolutely terrifying. She is conceited and unbearably malicious. Suffice it to say, Mary is quite properly reprimanded for her bad behaviour, but she isn’t one to be humbled. To get revenge, she claims that Martha and Karen are lesbian lovers. This plot point is a little dated; such a revelation would not (one hopes!) cause such tension now, but back in the 1930s (when the play was written), it would have been considerably more scandalous. The girls are removed from their care, and their world—school, friendship, and plans for the future—falls into ruin.
Despite some brief awkwardness (due, I suspect, to opening night nerves), the performances are, for the most part, strong. Everyone is exceptionally well-cast, but there are some who exhibit more skill than others.
Sydney Addison-Rudat is perfectly sleazy as Mary. She plays her as a compelling cipher; she is clever, but resentment has made her cruel and you can’t help but be chilled by the thought of the woman she might become. As Joe, Will van der Zyl seems to be channeling a 1930s stock character—Upstanding Guy. He is a charming cliché and he won me over by imbuing the stereotype with such sincerity. Kathleen Pollard and Marisa King (as Karen and Martha) are wonderful, particularly in the second act when things get really intense.
Pollard demonstrates how a flutter of activity can serve as a mask for deep turmoil. You can see her suffering, even when she’s putting on a brave face. King is a master of meaningful silences. Even when she isn’t saying anything, I was drawn to her face.
Director Jacqui Burke has crafted a simple and solid aesthetic. I was particularly impressed with the costuming. It is faithful to the period and suggests personality vividly. The lightening is a standard wash, but key moments are spotlighted. This focusing of attention is used very carefully to potent dramatic effect.
A major weakness of the production is the music. It is employed sparingly (to open and close each act), but I found it quite jarring. I think this particular staging could have done without any musical accompaniment, but the music might have worked had it been subtle. As it stands, rather than punctuate the drama, the music actually undermines it.
Encore Entertainment is a not-for-profit theatre company that strives—a true labour of love—to bring us family entertainments at affordable prices. Their production of The Children’s Hour was a pleasure for me. The cast and crew have done admirable work bringing this classic to life.
- The Children’s Hour plays at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Studio Theatre (5040 Yonge St.) until February 9
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8PM, with matinees on Sundays at 2PM
- Tickets are $28-$30 (with discounts for Groups, Seniors and Students)
- Tickets can be purchased at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Box Office, by phone at 1-855-985-2787 or online at www.encoreshows.com
Image provided by the company