Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Hellman's masterpiece centers around Mary (Maggie Johnson), a spoiled troublemaker who is perpetually in hot water with teachers at her small boarding school. Mary lashes out at her headmistress by accusing her of having a lesbian relationship with another teacher. The devastating effect of this accusation is a disturbing reminder of just how viciously intolerant of alternative lifestyles our society was just a few decades ago.
When The Children's Hour premiered on Broadway in 1934 any mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal in New York, and homosexuals were believed to be inherently dangerous to children. Attitudes have changed over time, but what Hellman shows us about cruel and baseless condemnation in the court of public opinion is more relevant than ever. The Children's Hour also provides the audience with valuable insight into how societal pressures and standards can become internalized. In the end this internalizationof the baseless accusations and harsh public judgmentsdoes the greatest harm.
The EgoPo cast is excellent and under Adrienne Mackey's direction they conjure characters who are authentic and relatable. Jenna Horton plays Karen, the accused headmistress. Horton's performance is intense, conveying the anguish and frustration that transforms Karen during her ordeal. Emilie Krause gives a sharp and nuanced performance as Karen's friend and accused lover Martha. Cheryl Williams (Mrs. Tilford) and Mary Lee Bednarek (Mrs. Mortar) also give excellent performances, allowing the audience to empathize with characters that might otherwise seem merely sinister or self-absorbed. Williams conveys a sense of internal struggle as Mary's manipulated grandmother. Bednarek lends some needed levity to the production as Martha's actress-turned-elocution-instructor aunt, but also shows the vulnerability and self-pity that may begin to explain her atrocious behavior.
Mackey even brings out the humanity in the lying Mary. Eschewing the standard interpretation of Mary as a bad seed and likely sociopath, Mackey and Johnson provide a smart but frustrated pre-teen whose prevarications are born of frustration and embarrassment. It is an interesting choice, but it is difficult to believe this awkward sulking tween Mary could force her grandmother hand or make her classmates lie.
EgoPo's production of The Children's Hour runs through October 25, 2015, at The Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th Street. Tickets are available by phone at (267) 273-1414 or at www.egopo.org.