Ritz patrons may have wondered why any theatre group would want to stage Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play THE CHILDREN’S HOUR in this day and age, when alternate lifestyles and same-sex marriage are becoming commonplace and accepted. However, considering the attitudes of some of today’s politicians toward people who are “different,” it might be well to remind us of the suffering once endured by these people. But this is not what the play is about. It is about the devastating effects that lies and gossip can have on human lives.
The story: Two young teachers, Karen Wright (Casey Williams Ficarra) and Martha Dobie (Emily Letts), have worked hard to establish a boarding school for girls in an old farmhouse. Karen is engaged to a local doctor, Joe Cardin (Jason Cutts). All is going well until a spoiled and discontented pupil, Mary Tilford (Kelly DelDuca), is disciplined for her lies and poor behavior and plans revenge on the two headmistresses. Two other girls tell her of an argument they overheard between Martha and her Aunt Lily (Janet Wilkie), a retired actress who teaches elocution, in which the latter accused Martha of being jealous of Karen’s engagement to Joe and called her “unnatural.” This gives Mary an idea. She runs away from school to the home of her grandmother/guardian, Amelia Tilford (Ann Gundersheimer), a socially influential woman. Acting upset and frightened, she whispers a “secret” to her grandmother about the relationship between Martha and Karen. Amelia then calls the parents of one of Mary’s schoolmates and sets off a chain reaction of children being taken out of the school. Eventually the headmistresses must confront Mary and Amelia. Asked repeatedly if she is telling the truth, Mary continues to lie. She has blackmailed another girl, Rosalie (Emily Onimous), a petty thief, into backing up her story. Matters then go from bad to worse until they lead to irreversible tragedy.
THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, inspired by a true story involving two Scottish teachers, was Lillian Hellman’s first hit on Broadway, so highly praised by critics that New York State laws against any suggestion of homosexuality were overlooked. A 1936 film version called “These Three” changed the story to that of a conventional love triangle because of the strict censorship code of the time. After the code was changed, the remake in 1961, starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, retained the original title and story.
If there is a flaw in the play, it is that there is no explanation as to why Mary is such a vicious child, nor is there any hint of what may become of her in later life. Only Agatha, the grandmother’s maid (Benita Simpson), seems to know what a monster she is.
The director, Esther Flaster, has assembled a dynamite cast of Ritz veterans and newcomers. Ultimately, it is the power of their performances that captures us. Emily Letts, unforgettable as Catherine in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER at South Camden Theatre Company, creates another memorably tormented character as Martha. Casey Williams-Ficarra as Karen and Jason Cutts as Joe are equally stunning. Janet Wilkie, previously known for her roles in Ritz musicals, makes an impressive dramatic debut as Aunt Lily. Ann Gundersheimer is believably distraught as Amelia, and Kelly DelDuca makes you want to turn her over your knee (as if spanking were punishment enough) as Mary.
The entire cast is excellent. The handsome sets representing the school and Tilford home living rooms and the music played before the show and between the acts do much to enhance the mood and action. If you like fine acting and riveting drama, this show is for you.
THE CHILDREN’S HOUR
by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Esther Flaster
March 2 – 31, 2012
The Ritz Theatre Company
915 White Horse Pike
Haddon Township, NJ 08107