Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in the 1930s, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie run an all-girls boarding school. Mary Tilford, who acts out, causes trouble and is disciplined, tells a lie about the two headmistresses to get back at them, saying there is something "unnatural" going on between the two women. She also bullies a fellow student into participating in the lie which has a lasting negative impact on the two women's careers and lives.
Hellman's dialogue is succinct and extremely well written, though the play itself is a little wordy, somewhat melodramatic, has some slow going parts, and the court case scene, in which the two women sue for libel, all happens offstage. While the ending shows the lasting effect of the events, the 1961 film version reworked the ending so it had even more of a shocking impact.
The cast for this production is uniformly good. As Martha and Karen, Kellie Dunlap and Jennifer Rio do well with their roles, though there is a slight disconnect in their acting styles, with Kellie's expressive nature sometimes at odds with Rio's more stoic and less emotional delivery. This occasionally causes a few of their scenes together to seem not quite believable. However, in the third act where Karen has a confrontational moment with her fiancé Joe (played very well by a sure footed Matthew Harris), followed by a conversation between Karen and Martha, with Martha searching for some understanding of the truth as to the woman she is and the shame that comes with it, both Dunlap and Rio deliver credible moments.
As Mary, Bella Tindall is exceptional. She has a perfect, realistic take on this bratty girl who causes trouble, makes things up, and is a bad influence on the other girls. Her calculating and expressive eyes and body language portray the spoiled and cocky girl superbly. Carolyn McBurney is equally convincing as Mary's well-meaning grandmother who gets involved in spreading the lies about the women, since she believes her granddaughter. Also, Deborah Hildebrandt is deliciously over the top as Martha's self-absorbed aunt, and Zoe Tanton portrays Rosalie, the girl who is forced by Mary to help her perpetuate the lie, with a perfectly expressive and confused nature.
Director Janis Webb doesn't let the talkier moments of the play bog down the action and she gets lovely performances from the group of teenagers who play the schoolgirls. She also manages to keep the whole play from going too far into melodrama, though a tighter grip on the acting styles might have allowed for a more emotional ending. Isabella Ronda's hair designs are lovely and Mickey Courtney's costumes are period appropriate.
In this age of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, The Children's Hour still holds much resonance, even though it was written over eighty years ago. Anyone can say anything they want about another person, having virtually no proof to back up their statements, and what they post on social media will be taken as the truth by many people. While I have a few quibbles with the play and this production, Hellman's words and the Desert Foothills cast come together to show the lasting emotional cost of gossip, rumor and bullying and how the statements of just one young girl can be extremely destructive.
The Children's Hour at Desert Foothills Theater runs through February 28th, 2016, at the Cactus Shadows Fine Art Center, 33606 N. 60th Street in Scottsdale. Tickets and information on upcoming shows can be found at www.desertfoothillstheater.org or by calling 480 488-1981.
Directed by Janis Webb