Lillian Hellman's drama "The Children's Hour" may be clearer to audiences today than when it set Broadway aflame in 1934 and attention focused on a secondary plot point rather than Hellman's core message.
In 1934, even oblique references to an "unnatural" relationship between two women was enough to obscure almost everything else about the play. It was banned in Boston and elsewhere but attracted crowds of theatergoers and propelled Hellman into superstardom. The "L" word is never uttered, even as it casts a vague shadow.
"The Children's Hour" may be about an "L" word, but the word is lies, as Hellman explores the power of lies to destroy people. Hellman based her story on an incident in early 19th-century Scotland in which two female teachers were ostracized after a student alleged that they were lovers. But Hellman's themes became clearer in the 1950s at the height of the McCarthy anti-communist hysteria, when she was victimized because of her admittedly left-wing views. After being put through the Washington wringer, Hellman restaged "The Children's Hour" on Broadway, with just a few minor revisions to make it a clear statement against the smears that ruined countless lives.
Arlington's Firebelly Productions takes the story back into 1934 with its workmanlike production now onstage at Theatre on the Run. A bad seed of a child, angry about being disciplined at her boarding school, whispers something about the two women who run the institution into just the right ears.
Within hours, the students have all been plucked out of the school by upset parents, and the two women, who have invested their lives in the school, are ruined financially and shattered emotionally.
The child's lie is overt. Other lies at the school and in the home of the child's grandmother, who recklessly sounds the alarm, are more subtle and live in the form of truths not told. All have their impact.
Today that child's lie might not receive much attention, but there are newer subjects that can ignite fears and hostile reactions. Charges of child molestation or suspicions of links to terrorism, for example, can arouse great fear and loathing and need to be taken seriously. But, as the play suggests, such charges warrant searching out the facts instead of jumping to conclusions.
This is a serious play, but, as the story occurs in a boarding school for girls, there are quite a few young girls in the cast. Amazingly, the scenes with the children -- with or without adults onstage -- have more dimension, energy and dramatic sizzle than the scenes performed strictly by adults. Leading the children's pack is Mollie Clement, who is widely remembered for her vivid portrayal of a young Helen Keller in The Arlington Players' outstanding production of "The Miracle Worker." Clement is truly scary as Mary, the angel-faced demon who has learned cunning, manipulation and deceit at a tender age. Clement's depiction of evil is unusually subtle and effective for one so young; she casts an eerie spell with just a slight smile of self-satisfaction when her machinations take effect.
Director Kathi Gollwitzer has less success with the adults, who seem slightly lost in the undertones. While the individual performances are adequate, the adult cast never completely sparks together, and big, dramatic scenes are slow and enervated, flattened by unnecessary gravitas. The exception is Heather Sanderson as Amelia Tilford, the demon-child's foolish grandmother, who consistently crackles with indignation and outrage. Fortunately, Hellman's peeling away of her characters' facades and her insight into the human heart remain compelling to the bitter end of this sordid tale, and despite lackluster lighting and scenic design, this is a fascinating study of the power of words.
"The Children's Hour," performed by Firebelly Productions, continues through Aug. 7 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays. For information or tickets, visit www.firebellyproductions.net or call 703-409-2372.