Dec ’06 Spotlight

Great works of art often have a timeless quality, tapping into something deep and universal in the human condition and resonating long past the era in which they were born. The TimeLine Theatre Company proves this anew with The Children’s Hour which runs through December 17. TimeLine’s commitment is to “Yesterday’s stories. Today’s topics.” and they take their educational mission very seriously, providing outstanding background notes for every new production. Browsing in the lobby before the show and/or between acts, all eyes are drawn to a wall panel summarizing the differences between the four best known versions of Lillian Hellman’s play, the original New York production (performed in 1934), the first film version (released as These Three in 1936 with Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon), the first major New York revival (staged in 1952), and the 1961 film version starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. As interesting as these details are in themselves, they also invite audience members to engage in the ongoing discussion: What does The Children’s Hour mean to me in 2006?

Here’s what I saw: two well-intentioned, educated, hard-working young women run a school for girls. Most of their pupils are conscientious and considerate, but one student, Mary Tilford, is a bully. All rational attempts to deal with Mary fail; she intimidates the other students and once she bends them to her will, she goes after her teachers. In the end, the school is completely destroyed as are the members of Mary’s own family.

According to director Nick Bowling: “Our treatment of the third act is what really makes this production so different. We have realized it as teacher Karen Wright’s nightmare. It makes the ending seem more possible and at the same time, more scary and surreal.” Indeed the world of act one, visualized in mellow earth tones has been completely obliterated by act three, which is presented in apocalyptic black and white.

Written in the depths of the Great Depression, The Children’s Hour eerily anticipated both Hitler’s rise and the subsequent McCarthy Era. In each case, a charismatic leader used a combination of charm and coercion to wreak havoc. Why didn’t we recognize these monsters before their power reached its cataclysmic threshold? TimeLine’s inspired casting provides a clue. The heavy burden of playing “Mary Tilford” rests on the shoulders of young Zanny Laird, and she’s a marvel. This 14-year old freshman at Fenwick High School has already amassed considerable stage experience including four years at American Girl Theater, and she adroitly uses her wholesome facade to disarm us. Projecting the lessons of The Children’s Hour into the future, The TimeLine Theatre Company is predicting that history will not be kind to George Walker Bush.

For more information about The Children’s Hour as well as TimeLine’s synchronous production of Lillian (a dazzling one-woman show about playwright Lillian Hellman starring the riveting Janet Ulrich Brooks), visit the TimeLine Theatre website:

http://www.timelinethreatre.com

ALSO PLAYING

The Elgin Area Historical Society recently opened a wonderful new exhibit called “The Jewish Experience in Elgin: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Assimilation,” which covers approximately 150 years of local history beginning with the arrival of Leopold and Joseph Adler in 1858. The storyboards are well-grouped by topic (religion, politics, philanthropy, etc.) while a 10-minute video features personal reminiscences by Elgin natives such as Phyllis Fischer Brenner, Ron Burstein, and Don Lesser.

Economic life had two hubs: the Douglas Avenue mercantile center (a mini-Maxwell Street) on the one hand, and Elgin State Hospital (a magnet for physicians and research scientists from some of America’s most prestigious medical schools) on the other. We’re introduced to prominent local personalities such as Max Eppenstein, the head of the Illinois Watch Case Company, and his wife Sarah, whose philanthropic commitments, both within the Jewish community and beyond, are well-documented. Newspaper columns record the local response to the Russian pogroms of 1905 as well as fund-raising efforts during the Holocaust, but the exhibit also displays menus and artifacts from Blum’s popular ice cream and candy store.

Elgin High School graduated its first Jewish student, Leopold Adler’s son Max, in 1883. Max Adler went on to endow Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. In the words of Harry Seigle of the Seigle Family Foundation: “Why is it that Elgin was a receptive home to Jewish immigrants and their progeny when other communities were not? Hopefully this exhibit will cause students and teachers to examine this question together.”

For more information, visit:

http://www.elginhistory.org

TZIVI’S CD COLLECTION

Looking for a fun gift for Bubbi and Zayde this Chanukah? Check out Yiddish Music Goes Gypsy, a labor of love by three Chicago-based musicians. Danny Milosavljevic plays the violin while Djula Milosavljevic and Dave Waterman play accordions. Volume One contains classics such as a delightfully up tempo version of Di Greene Kuzine. Volume Two continues the magic with a lively cover of Rumania, Rumania. Played together, these two CDs will provide just the right background music for multigenerational family holidays.

To order, visit:

http://www.GypsyFireAndSoul.com

TZIVI’S DVD COLLECTION

In the new film For Your Consideration, an intimate period indie called Home for Purim is transformed through buzz and hype into Oscar-contender Home for Thanksgiving. This sounds like ripe territory for Jewish comedy, but alas, the latest mocumentary from the terrific team behind such charmers as Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show left me cold. Of all the films fronted by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, my personal favorite is A Mighty Wind from 2003. Bob Balaban leads the ensemble as “Jonathan Steinbloom,” son of folk music promoter Irving Steinbloom. When his father dies at a very ripe old age, Jonathan decides the only fitting memorial is a concert at Manhattan’s Town Hall, so he schemes to bring his father’s greatest discoveries back for one last reunion, to be filmed live by PBS.

A Mighty Wind has everything from hearty belly-laughs to nostalgic tears, with wonderful music that creates its own genre beyond parody. Unlike For Your Consideration, which brings nothing new to its Jewish elements, A Mighty Wind explores both the Jewish roots of the folk music boom (through the persona of Irving Steinbloom) as well as the way Jewish values permeated the counterculture of the 1960s and became mainstream (most evident in Ed Begley Junior’s hilarious character “Lars Olfen,” the PBS producer whose Yiddish-peppered speech is totally natural without a hint of condescension or self-consciousness).

*****

Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.

PHOTO CREDITS:

  Zanny Laird (far left) wreaks havoc in TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. Photo by Lara Goetsch.

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