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November 19, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, November 19, 2004

An antique play An antique play (November 19, 2004)

'Children's Hour' in need of updating

by Jeanie Forte

"The Children's Hour" is an American classic, written in 1934 by the grand dame of American theater, Lillian Hellman, when she was just beginning to make a name for herself as a playwright. A hard-hitting drama whose central concern is the effect of rumor-mongering, it put Hellman on the literary map.

Its main claim to fame came in the 1950s, when it was revived with great success to make a political statement about McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The story of how a child's lie to her grandmother can become a deadly rumor that devastates two lives resonated with audiences decrying blacklisting. Foothill Theatre's revival of this well-known chestnut continues through this weekend.

The setting is a posh girls' boarding school that two college friends, Karen Wright (Kimberly Roberts) and Martha Dobie (Heather Galli), have worked hard to establish and make reputable. Their success has been aided by Amelia Tilford (Carolyn Ford Compton), an imposing society figure who is the grandmother of their most recalcitrant student, Mary (Jaime McFaden).

When Mary escapes from the school to avoid a deserved punishment, she lies to her grandmother about having seen "unnatural" acts between the two schoolmistresses, setting off a disastrous chain of events. No matter that Mrs. Tilford's own nephew, Joe (Christian Thomas), is Karen's fiance, and that they and Martha vehemently deny the charges -- Mrs. Tilford insists on believing it.

The theme might still be relevant, if it weren't for the particular rumor that Hellman chose to hang her plot on. Making homosexuality the ultimate degradation and shameful accusation that the two women suffer hopelessly dates the play, even rendering it rather offensive in this day and age -- at least in the Bay Area.

The ending, meant to be tragic, now comes across as a horrible over-reaction. There's no voice in the play to counteract the negative view of homosexuality.

Hellman rewrote the script for its first film treatment in 1937, to satisfy censors' qualms about the lesbian accusation in the play, making the rumor instead about Joe's philandering with the two women. The film, "These Three," works equally well as a study of rumors' deadly effects, and would probably "read" well even to today's audiences. Or, what if the teachers were accused instead of child molestation, a story ripped from today's headlines? If Hellman were still alive, no doubt she would be revising the script to suit the times.

It's like a beautiful piece of antique furniture, the fragile chair you inherited that sits in the corner -- if you use it, it will crack under the strain, but you keep it out of sentiment. The play is an acting coach's dream for the great scenes it offers for study. But whether or not it stands the test of time as a whole play is debatable.

In Foothill's production, some uneven casting and heavy-handed direction further muddy the waters. Roberts seems out of her emotional depth, particularly at the end, when it's too easy for the play to turn maudlin; she doesn't avoid the trap. Galli is more believable as Martha, although her protracted glumness wears thin. There needs to be greater contrast from her initial mood to her despair at the end.

Helena Clarkson does an admirable job as the self-serving Ms. Mortar, Martha's annoying aunt, and Thomas fares well as Joe, with a bracing optimism and laconic smile. Compton does an outstanding delivery of Amelia Tilford, managing to make her sympathetic right up to the point when she takes Mary's bait. Her final attempt to make amends is nicely understated and heartfelt, albeit worthless.

The young actresses playing the boarding-school girls are effective in their characterizations. I especially enjoyed the emotional range in Valerie Rose Curiel's performance as Rosalie. However, even in the beginning scene, the school's a dreary place to be -- no wonder Mary wants to escape. Not one of them seems to be happy there. We never get to see Karen or Martha being warm or nurturing -- there's no hint of them being loved or revered teachers, which would make the reversal all the more heart-rending.

I also question the choice of older girls cast as younger girls; if Mary is an older teen, as McFaden can only be, it casts a decidedly different interpretation on the text, one that I don't think is entirely justified. But if we're meant to imagine McFaden and her friends as younger girls, say 12 to 14, it stretches believability, since they're so clearly older than the actual 12 to 14-year-olds playing the other girls.

That being said, McFaden and classmates Brittany Heideman and Kate McKnight -- all young actresses in Foothill's conservatory program -- are talents to watch. Hopefully we'll get to see them in a better vehicle for their talents in the future.

What: "The Children's Hour," written by Lillian Hellman

Where: Foothill College's Playhouse Theatre (Room 1301), 12345 El Monte Road in Los Altos Hills.

When: Tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $16 general; $12 for students and seniors, and include free parking in Lots 1 or 6 only.

Info: To purchase tickets, access www.foothill.edu/fa/drama or www.ticketweb.com or call (650) 949-7360.


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