The damage a liar can cause, especially one who is championed by blindly trusting believers, is the theme of Lillian Hellman’s classic drama “Children’s Hour,” which opens Friday at Anacortes Community Theatre.
“This play is about a series of lies, primarily one big lie, that ruins everyone’s lives,” said Director Jan Trumble.
It all starts at a private girls’ school, where Mary, a willful young student, skips class and tries to cover up with up a lie about picking flowers for a teacher. When challenged by another teacher, she clings to the story with steely determination, even feigning illness. After she is punished, Mary changes her story, taking in a snippet of overheard conversation and twisting it to implicate the teacher who disciplined her.
“The rumor is that two young teachers, both women, ‘have an unnatural relationship with each other,’ is how it’s described,” Trumble said.
Mary’s grandmother, aristocratic Amelia Tilford (Karen McCallum), swallows the story and repeats it to the parents of other pupils. As the rumors spread, the teachers are baffled as families start withdrawing girls from the school.
When “Children’s Hour” opened in Broadway in 1934, such a rumor was dynamite.
“There was a fear at the time that someone in such a relationship would try to turn the girls into lesbians,” Trumble said.
Mary is portrayed compellingly by Tasha Weiss, who has matured since she played the sweet young heroine in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in 2006. She is headstrong, but does she intend the terrible chain of events she has initiated?
Trumble said in some versions of the play Mary is portrayed as evil, but she believes the truth to be more complicated, as in life. People have both good and bad in their nature, and she thinks this makes a more compelling story.
“Are they evil now or were they evil then? I want people to believe this child can do the right thing,” Trumble said. “Can they be redeemed? Can the teachers be redeemed? It’s a whole different slant than how it’s been done in the past.”
She gives the youthful characters some benefit of the doubt.
“The kids, they maybe don’t know what they are talking about,” she said.
“Children’s Hour” has been adapted and revived several times, with the nature of the lie altered in early film versions to fit censorship standards. In the 1950s, the play was revived after Hellman was called to testify in House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. It struck a chord at a time when rumors and accusations connected with the anti-Communist hearings resulted in people being blacklisted. In that era, participants were blinded by belief in an ideology.
Today the play still resonates, as stories continue to break about abuse at church schools. Now, Trumble said, a false allegation would probably involve inappropriate touching.
“The specific conduct is different. It still ruins the teachers’ lives. These teachers never get reinstated as teachers,” she said.
Trumble was struck by the play from the time she first encountered it in high school. She has had the script and has wanted to present the play for years. She said it can be hard to get the go-ahead to stage a controversial play.
“The climate has to be right. You often don’t get to do straight drama, especially if a child is perceived to be the villain,” she said.
Weiss is well supported by Danielle Olson, a show stopper as Rosalie, a little girl manipulated into corroborating Mary’s lie. Also wrenching are Elizabeth Lundquist as Martha, who is particularly hurt to find a kernel of truth in the rumor deep inside herself, and Rebecca Launius as Karen, a caring teacher who grows increasing disillusioned.
“You see people coming apart on stage,” Trumble said.
It’s easy to care about these characters and hard to watch their worlds come apart.
“There won’t be a breath of air in the room at the end of some of these acts,” Trumble said, adding a gasp.
The play is produced by Judy Hendrix. Other cast members include Carolyn Hatch as teacher Lily Mortar; Brian Thurston as Karen’s fiancé, Dr. Joseph Cardin; Heather Cloke Mahaffie as Agatha; and Adrianna Crommett, Veronica Crommett, Shaina Doyle, Fiona Frein, Elizabeth McAllister, Chloe Roberts and Talma Settera as the other school girls.
“Children’s Hour,” an adult drama by Lillian Hellman, will be presented June 5-27 at Anacortes Community Theatre, 10th Street and M Avenue.
Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. Sunday matinees June 14 and 21. Tickets are $16. Call 293-6829 or visit www.acttheatre.com.