Sociology and playwriting have both changed immeasurably in the 52 years since Lillian Hellman wrote "The Children's Hour." A shocker in its day, it is the story of two women who run a girls' school and are accused by a malevolent student of harboring an "unnatural" love for each other. As revived at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville in a workmanlike but never particularly inspired production, the drama seems curiously quaint today.
As a society, we are far more sophisticated in our attitudes towards the sundry relationships of consenting adults; the hullabaloo raised by the mere specter of lesbianism in "The Children's Hour" registers as a rather flagrant overreaction. Indeed, the two schoolteachers are sexual innocents who, until the nasty charge is hurled their way, never thought of themselves as more than best friends. By the time Hellman's play reaches its melodramatic conclusion, however, one of them will have committed suicide in remorse, the other broken off her engagement and retreated into a lonely shell. All because of the lie from a child's lips.
Still, let's grant the drama the hysteria of a less liberal era. That still leaves the rattling dramaturgy. Hellman once said she wrote the play in "a year and a half of stumbling stubbornness" and that stubbornness shows. You can sense the playwright pushing the story to its climax, engineering the confrontations and hammering out the zingers. Hellman took a deep relish in human perfidy, which is why "The Little Foxes," her study of unadulterated southern avariciousness, remains her best play. The only character in "Children's Hour" who still bristles with life on the stage is the spoiled schoolgirl who purposefully sets out to destroy the two teachers. (Jane Beard plays her with such convincingly sullen petulance that you want to get out of your seat and give her a good slapping.)
It seems to me there are two ways to deal with matters. You can admit that "The Children's Hour" belongs to another time and treat it as a period piece. Or you can understate the obvious soap-operatics by having actors play against the grain. This production, directed by Dorothy Neumann, does neither. The sparsely furnished sets are dominated by a row of columns, vaguely suggestive of a Greek temple, while the costumes are of a style known as attic trunk. No help there. And the cast members, for the most part, tend to go repeatedly for the feverish highs and the despairing lows. What, you ask yourself, as they gaze over the footlights, anguish stamped on their faces, could they possibly be looking at? The exits?
Where there is restraint -- in the nicely modulated performance of Mary Ellen Nester as the stronger of the two teachers, for example -- the production goes up several notches and provides some indication of the residual power of Hellman's vision. What Nester does is allow the emotion to fester and boil under the surface -- an approach that gives the character some depth and mitigates the bathos of her plight. Pamela Ritchard Brown is acceptable as the wealthy dowager who initiates proceedings to close the school and lives to regret it. But Amy Austin painfully overstates the case for the other schoolteacher, who suddenly realizes that, yes, maybe she does have unconventional stirrings in her heart. And Betsy Nuell is miscast by several decades as her flibbertigibbet aunt.
Of the original 1934 production, one Broadway critic noted that it "will make your eyes start from their sockets." Consider it a mark of the times that this "Children's Hour," which runs through Feb. 9, won't even raise your eyebrows.
The Children's Hour, by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Dorothy Neumann; sets, Nathan Rosen; lighting, Paul Jackson; costumes, Peter Zakutansky. With Betsy Nuell, Liz Croyden, Deborah Stromberg, Jane Beard, Mary Ellen Nester, Amy Austin, Brian Hemmingsen, Pamela Ritchard Brown. At the Jewish Community Center in Rockville through Feb. 9.