TimeLine’s The Children’s Hour

From 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.

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