By Brian Neumann
Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, which explores the destructive and consuming power of unopposed lies, remains as relevant today as it was when it premiered in 1934. The play tells the story of two New England teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, struggling to keep their boarding school—and their dreams—alive. Having worked for years to buy the land and start the school, they are on the verge of financial stability when their world is torn apart. Mary Tilford, a vengeful and bitterly unhappy student, accuses her teachers of having an affair. As parents fearfully withdraw their children from the school, Mary’s false accusation slowly destroys the women’s careers, their relationships and their lives.
The Furman Theatre Department’s production of The Children’s Hour, which runs until November 10, masterfully brings the story to life. The play is anchored by Taylor Davidson (Karen Wright) and Caroline Davis (Martha Dobie). As Davidson’s prim and composed character loses everything for which she has worked so hard, her hair, wardrobe and mannerisms all change to reflect the extent to which her world has unraveled. Davis brings similar depth and subtlety to her performance that hints at her character’s inner turmoil long before it is fatally revealed in the final act.
The entire cast is excellent. Adjunct Professor Carol Sutton, who plays an aging actress living off the memories of her former glory, provides much of the play’s comedic power. Associate Professor Margaret Caterisano powerfully drives the plot forward while softening and humanizing an otherwise antagonistic character. JP Pierce, who plays Karen’s fiancée Joseph Cardin, brings his character’s dramatic emotional journey to life. Freshman Erin Barnett portrays Mary Tilford with brilliant and chilling intensity; she acts with her entire body, her every movement alive with energy and emotion. Supporting cast members Lizzie Dockery, Amelie Wendling, Amy Poon, Kailie Melchior, Ellie Caterisano, Ashton Flora, Regina Wells and Rusty Johnson were likewise superb.
The lighting, costumes and set design powerfully heighten the play’s emotional impact. In the first act, the stage is washed with a soft yellow lighting, which by the final act gives way to the dim, dark lighting of the characters’ fractured world. The set, similarly, suggests a world ravaged by lies and self-deception. In the words of director Jay Oney, the set is “incomplete, covered up, and slightly wrong in its angles,” suggesting everything that is wrong in this small New England town.
For those who have yet to see The Children’s Hour, a few performances remain. The show begins at 8:00 p.m. in The Playhouse every night until Saturday, Nov. 10. The experience of this magnificent production is best captured by the words of Taylor Davidson: “I love those moments on stage where it becomes real, where you are completely absorbed in the moment and you feel what the character feels, those moments where it’s real and raw and vulnerable…And maybe you get the opportunity to make someone else experience that, too. To make them ache for a character and feel that emotion and that empathy. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”