- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

The alpha girls who besieged Lindsay Lohan in the movie “Mean Girls” are rank amateurs compared to Mary Tilford (Paige Hernandez), the spiteful sociopath whose actions cause a profound ripple effect in Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama “The Children’s Hour.”

Mary spreads a rumor that her school’s two headmistresses, Karen Wright (Tess Hartman) and Martha Dobie (Stephanie Burden), are lesbians. The nature of the smear may not jolt audiences today the way it did back in the 1930s.

But “The Children’s Hour” was banned in Boston, Chicago and London back then. (Eight years before “The Children’s Hour,” a French play dealing with a similar relationship was forced to close during its New York run, and the starring actresses were charged with obscenity and carted off to jail.)

Miss Hellman’s intent was not taboo thrills but to illuminate how social injustice, intolerance and falsehoods destroy the lives of good people. At Everyman Theatre, director Donald Hicken has assembled an excellent cast for this riveting production, with many of the students played by actors from the Baltimore School for the Arts.

The disciplined vivacity exuded by the younger members of the cast speaks volumes about the high school’s theater program, and age-appropriate actors playing the girls’-school students lends an invigorating air of authenticity to the production.

These girls are pieces of work: nasty; gossipy; threatening; and, in some cases, petty thieves. And all are daughters of privilege.

Mary is the leader of the pack, a habitual liar who resorts to bullying and physical violence when the other girls don’t do her bidding. She has her patrician grandmother (Paula Gruskiewicz) wrapped around her finger, but the headmistresses Karen and Martha are onto her endless schemes.

Miss Hernandez is every inch the “bad seed” as Mary, such a vividly manipulative, amoral creature that you don’t know whether you want to slap her, incarcerate her or wait for the movie to come out about her adult life as a serial killer.

In retaliation against Karen and Martha’s attempts at discipline, Mary tells her grandmother that the two are lovers and that the students have witnessed their intimate moments. The fallout from Mary’s lie does more than demolish Karen and Martha’s dreams of running an exemplary prep school. The act ruins Karen’s chances at happiness with her compassionate fiance, Joe (Lance Coadie Williams), and forces Martha to face certain realities about herself.

Miss Hartman is especially sympathetic as Karen, her calm and steady devastation much more effective than a mass of emotional fireworks. Miss Burden provides a strong contrast in her blunt, sputtery portrayal of Martha. Her character is an outspoken live wire, and to see her flame quickly die out in the second act is greatly affecting.

The only two discordant notes in the casting are Mr. Williams’ tentative, frequently stumbling performance as Joe and Rosemary Knower lending a touch of garishness to the role of Martha’s florid Aunt Lily.

Set designer Daniel Ettinger has assembled a faintly shabby, cozy set that suggests Martha and Karen’s attempts at making the school both homey and academic. In the second act, the same space seems cold and empty, devoid of the life the students gave the rooms.

“The Children’s Hour” may seem somewhat passe in its veiled references to homosexuality, but Miss Hellman’s ideals are not outdated, and Everyman Theatre’s taut and involving production emphasizes just how injurious a single lie can be.


WHAT: “The Children’s Hour” by Lillian Hellman

WHERE: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., Baltimore, and Rep Stage, 10910 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: At Everyman: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 20. At Rep Stage: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Feb. 25-March 13.

TICKETS: $15-$28.

PHONE: 410/752-2208 (Everyman), 410/772-4900 (Rep Stage)

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