The Burke Centre Players have opened their 1990-91 season with Lillian Hellman's powerful drama "The Children's Hour." The play was first produced in 1934, and while some of the language may seem dated, the play is tightly structured, the action relentless and the impact staggering. I cannot think of another play that tackles so thoroughly the power of wickedness and the power of the lie.

Based loosely on an actual legal case, the play concerns two teachers, Karen Wright (Vivian Bligh) and Martha Dobie (Lenny Granger), who run a boarding school for girls. They have worked long and hard and sacrificed much to make the school a success, even tolerating the presence of Martha's aunt, Lilly Mortar (played courageously by Adriana A. Hardy), a seemingly harmless out-of-work actress who supervises sewing and elocution lessons.

Unfortunately for everyone, student Mary Tilford, spoiled and precocious, loathes school and lies compulsively. (She is played with strength by Caroline Weaver.) Karen tells Mary that she will have to inform her grandmother, Mrs. Tilford (a splendid performance by Lee McKenna), of Mary's alarming behavior.

Karen and Martha realize the school is going well enough that Karen can marry her fiance (a fine, gentlemanly performance by Vince Tibavido) and that Lilly can be let go. When Martha informs her aunt, Lilly counters out of sheer pique that Martha is getting rid of her because she senses Martha's unnatural attachment to Karen. Some of the students happen to be listening at the keyhole.

Mary learns of these remarks, dashes home to her grandmother and demands to be removed from the school because of the relationship between the two teachers. To make the lie stick, Mary brutalizes a pathetic girl who is subject to kleptomania, Rosalie Wells (well and sensitively played by Trissy Sincavage), into saying that she saw the teachers making love.

Children are snatched from the school and a libel case follows, which we do not see on stage but which the teachers lose because Lilly, their key witness, never arrives to testify that her remarks were made in heat. The judge concludes that there is no defense against the students' accusations.

Lenny Granger is splendid as Martha, while Vivian Bligh, wearing heavy makeup and a Dolly Parton wig, seems overly enamored of pauses and downcast eyes.

In the last act, Lilly returns, clearly unemployed again and much too late. Karen parts with her fiance. Mrs. Tilford waits in the driveway to let the teachers know she has finally learned the truth and wishes to make restitution for Mary's lie. Before the play ends, one of the teachers has taken her own life.

Gae Schmitt has directed "The Children's Hour" with painstaking care. This is an extremely strong production of a play that must be seen by anyone who loves theater that treats powerful subjects bravely.

The Burke Centre Players will perform "The Children's Hour" at The Landings Community Center, Burke Centre Parkway, through Sunday. For tickets, call 250-2103.