Theatre, as is the case with all art, possesses a truly divine capacity to examine complex topics through a gentler lens. It allows viewers to consider more serious ideas that they may otherwise have pushed aside in casual conversation. I believe that art should do one of two things: entertain or educate. It either can create a pleasant escape from reality or act as a conduit towards a deeper one. The play that I saw at the College of Southern Maryland (CSM) this last weekend does the latter (and if I’m being honest, I secretly prefer to be educated by art).
If you like a show that really gets your mind thinking and reeling over serious topics, then this is the show for you.
The basic premise of the play “The Children’s Hour” is that there is a private all girls school where two headmistresses oversee a group of young girls. One of the girls (a particularly bratty one whose grandmother has donated a fair amount to the school) feels scorned by the headmistresses. In response to what she feels to be a slight against her, she fabricates a life-altering lie about the two women. From there, inevitable havoc ensues. For the sake of not spoiling this story, I am going to keep the specifics rather vague in this review.
While I was researching for this review, I came across some really interesting history as it pertains to this play. The play was originally written and produced in 1934 in New York City to a fair bit of success. However, once it attempted to open a show in Chicago, it ended up being censored by a local citizen watch group due to its content. Something that I found incredible about the source material of this play is just how ahead of its time it was with how it dealt with such complex topics.
Where this particular production truly shines is with its three adults leads: Kate Taylor as Karen Wright, Sarah Jones as Martha Dobie, and Matt Jones as Doctor Joseph Cardin. Since these three characters carry the entire second half of the play and large portion of its first half, the crux of this story rests on these three actors’ abilities to play off each other well. I believe that these three did just that.
For example, Kate Taylor portrays a woman with thick, brooding walls that she has put up to protect her and those around her that she loves against all costs. She’s a no-nonsense kind of person who sees the world as it is, not how she wishes it could be. Taylor plays this beautifully with a very unique vocal cadence that has an insane ferocity to it.
Sarah Jones, on the other hand, plays a woman who is immensely vulnerable and wears her emotions on her sleeve (even when she wishes she didn’t). She gives a truly bone-chilling, goosebumps-inducing performance of an emotionally-conflicted woman having to examine herself for the first time in a long time. I very rarely have a physiological response to an actor’s performance during live theatre, but her performance gave me chills up my arms. It was at times uncomfortable to watch her character’s emotional journey throughout the story, but I believe that was what made her performance all the more authentic and memorable. The last time that I recall being this moved by an actor’s performance was during Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen. Here’s to hoping that we get to see more of Sarah Jones in future CSM productions.
Rounding out the leading trio, Matt Jones shows us a man who is earnestly in love with his fiancée and is willing to stay by her side through any and all adversity. He imbues his character with an emotional intensity that elicits deep empathy from the viewer. You can feel every shred of anguish that this man undergoes as the story progresses because of M. Jones’ sheer dedication to the truth of his character’s emotional journey. The way that he tenderly interacts with Taylor’s character just about rips your heart out in the best way possible. The heartfelt intensity that emanates from this actor’s eyes while playing this eventually broken man is refreshingly authentic.
Along with the three aforementioned actors, I also enjoyed the ensemble work of the six actors who portrayed the young students at the all-girls boarding school (Skylar Hepner, Mackenzie Davis, Emily Johnson, Elizabeth Campbell, Izabella Krebs, and Hannah Lunczynski) and Carol Charnock as Amelia Tilford (the aforementioned wealthy grandmother to the bratty child who stirs everything up) during the first half of the story. All of the young actresses worked together rather seamlessly and were very believable as classmates at a boarding school in the 1930s. During the first scene of the show, in particular, I truly felt like I was back in grade school with how effortless the comradery felt between all of them. Charnock elicited some serious Ann Dowd vibes ala Aunt Lydia from the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. She created such an all-consuming authenticity to the character’s convictions, even if they were misguided in the end.
Set design by Erik Braun and lighting design by Dylan Wojciechowski were both helpful in giving further meaning to the story. The set was composed of two simple room settings to convey two different scenarios throughout the story. I felt the small details put into the set decoration (certain pictures hung, etc.) helped to flesh out the context of each backdrop. The lighting created some truly beautiful moments throughout the show when characters were in particular bouts of turmoil by bathing certain characters in light to highlight their emotions. In particular, I felt that the final moment of the show before the lights black was the most moving of the lighting cues.
Rounding out this production is direction by Suzanne L. Donohue. Donohue did a fantastic job of handling the delicate source material of this production. If done disrespectfully, I could see how this show could very easily come off as offensive to a lot of people. However, she focused on the humanity of the story in a beautiful way that avoided this. In particular, her blocking of various scenes (specifically the final scene of the show) helped to highlight the beauty that exists within tragedy, no matter how heart wrenching it may be.
So, friends, at this point you’re probably wondering who I would recommend this incredibly emotionally complex show to. I believe that this is the kind of show for someone who likes to digest their theatre. By that I mean this show is for someone who doesn’t want to simply just be entertained. The story deals with some very heavy topics that are bitingly relevant today (even though this play was written in 1934). If you like a show that really gets your mind thinking and reeling over serious topics, then this is the show for you. If I’m being honest, I’m still reeling a bit myself.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: This show deals with mature themes such as suicide, sexual allegations, and prejudice. I would recommend it for 14+ with parental guidance.
“The Children’s Hour” is currently playing at the College of Southern Maryland’s Fine Arts Center through Sunday, March 15th. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit their website here.