By Lydia Gompper
A malicious little girl and a vicious lie: in McLean High School’s production of “The Children’s Hour,” that’s all it takes to destroy two innocent lives.
Penned by American playwright Lillian Hellman, “The Children’s Hour” premiered on Broadway in 1934, garnering a widely positive reception despite its then-controversial content. Based on the true story of an 1810 Scottish court case, the play tells the tale of two schoolmistresses, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, who are accused by an angry, manipulative student of having an affair. The lie is spread throughout the community, inflicting irreparable damage upon the women’s relationships and lives. Still relevant more than eighty years after its publication, the show deals with eternal themes such as the pervasiveness of gossip and terrible power of shame.
The students of McLean High School have produced an emotionally striking production of this weighty show, adeptly handling its topical maturity with a finesse beyond their limited years. The cast ably executed the play’s quick dialogue, maintaining firm pacing, and successfully depicted the wide age range of the characters. Every school girl on stage was believably childlike.
The production’s success rested firmly on the capable shoulders of leading ladies Jordan Prather and Anna Kate Womack (Martha Dobie and Karen Wright, respectively). Prather’s portrayal of the tormented Dobie showed impressive flexibility, as she seamlessly moved between righteous anger after first hearing the rumors, to a soft sadness and faux-cheerfulness in her treatment of Karen after losing their court case for slander. However, it was her ultimate breakdown that most stood out, offering the audience a jolt of fierce emotion as she desperately admitted her true feelings for Karen. Womack, meanwhile, most stood out in the play’s final act, as the show reached its peak of intensity. Her expressionless, numb reaction to Martha’s ultimate death was viscerally striking.
Other onstage standouts included freshman Rachel Kulp as Mary Tilford, the sociopathic puppetmaster schoolgirl who formulates a clever lie to keep herself from having to return to school after running away. Kulp delivered perfectly ferocious cruelty and darkness in her character’s harsh treatment of her fellow students, while ably executing the transition to Tilford’s veneer of childish innocence in front of the adult characters. She maintained a balance of kiddishness and evil that was bone-chillingly creepy. Other performers who made notable impressions included Amanda Flores, whose portrayal of Mary’s easily influenced schoolmate Rosalie Wells was perfectly pitiable, and Joey Barth, who offered a solid, likeable interpretation of Karen’s rational fiance Dr. Joseph Cardin.
This production’s strengths were not limited to its onstage artists but certainly included the play’s technical elements. Senior Jared Jacknow’s original music compositions added a daunting, horror-movie-like eeriness to the show’s set changes, mixing a juvenile lullaby melody with a dramatic undertone that highlighted the damage that a young girl could do to two adult women. The music worked symbiotically with the show’s lighting, also designed by Jared Jacknow, to underscore the show’s sinister undercurrent. Meanwhile, the production’s design teams executed the play’s 1930s aesthetic superbly, from the period costumes to every thoughtfully selected detail of the rotating set.
McLean High School’s production of “The Children’s Hour” was poignant and thought-provoking. With a remarkably skilled cast and crew, the show was tragically moving, pushing its audience to consider the implications of falsehood, cruelty, and self-hatred. It was a true dramatic accomplishment.