Lillian Hellman's 1934 Play Isn't Nearly As Outdated As Some Might Suppose.
By Margaret Regan
LAST WEEK IN a Boston suburb, some parents demanded a large payment from their school district, claiming their daughter was denied her right to an education. The reason? The teenager is too distraught to continue in public high school after learning that her social studies teacher is a lesbian.
This nasty little episode of extortion suggests that Lillian Hellman's 1934 play, The Children's Hour, is not nearly so outdated as some might have supposed. Brought to the stage in a serviceable production by One In Ten Theatre Company, the disturbing 62-year-old play hinges on an unfounded accusation that two women who run a private school are lovers.
The lie seeps through the lives of the two women like a slow poison, depriving them of far more than their livelihoods. The playwright documents how utterly ruinous it was in her day for a person to be touched by even a rumor of homosexuality, true or false. But beyond this social documentation, Hellman takes on more universal themes of good and evil. In The Children's Hour, whose ironic title derives from the Longfellow poem about childhood innocence, an unexplained evil takes root in a young girl.
Played wonderfully by Leila Nadel-Cadexa, a junior at Tucson High School, Mary is the quintessential bad seed, a born manipulator who sets the action in motion by whispering lies to her wealthy grandmother. But the seed manages to thrive only because it's nourished by the adults around her. Their thoughtless willingness to casually destroy other people's lives is more evil than Mary's pure malice.
These are big themes for a small community theatre company, especially one like One In Ten that has weathered scathing reviews and small audiences all season. (The company is going on hiatus after this show, having canceled a production planned for May.) But the troupe is up to the challenge in this production, directed by Scott Seitzberg, a local actor who with this play makes his Tucson directing debut. Though sometimes the actors rush to get their lines out, on the whole the cast of 13 performs well. Hilary Pursehouse does a star turn as a flamboyant, self-centered elocutionist. Laura Ann Herman is engaging as Karen, one of the accused teachers, and Ben Priam is likable as her well-meaning fiancé. Seitzberg has even gotten decent performances out of the show's five other youngsters, including even the youngest, 10-year-old Katherine Adam.
But unfortunately, Lissa Diaz mars the ensemble work with a one-note, muffled performance as Martha, the other teacher. She talks too fast and too quietly, and she swallows her words instead of projecting them out toward the audience. It's a pity that a weak lead has been allowed to diminish an otherwise decent production.
The Children's Hour continues Wednesdays through Sundays through March 30 at the Historic Y Theatre, 738 N. Fifth Ave. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $9 in advance, $10 at the door. For reservations and information call 770-9279.
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