"The Children's Hour" at Lakewood Playhouse

The L word

By Christian Carvajal on January 16, 2013

Willian Hellman's The Children's Hour is a long play, close to three hours, and its first hour is depressingly boring. Yet it's easy to see how its daring, few-holds-barred script was a Broadway sensation in 1934 - so much so, in fact, that New York state authorities were willing to forgo a ban on one of its key themes. Two headmistresses who own and operate a private boarding school are accused of having "unlawful sexual conduct," with, as you might expect, disastrous effects on their lives. The catch is they're accused by a student, Mary Tilford, known to have a shaky regard for the truth. There's every reason to believe Mary's lying, and her rich, influential grandmother overreacting, until another student, Rosalie Wells, corroborates her story.

By sheer coincidence, my wife and I watched the 1956 film adaptation of The Bad Seed the night before we saw this show, and it was interesting to track society's view of amoral children through the decades. In each script, the youth is acknowledged as a sociopath, but succeeds by milking society's desire to blame someone else.

As with any talky drama, Lakewood Playhouse's production depends on compelling, charismatic performances. What it gets, I'm obliged to say, is a mixed bag. Director John Munn cast the show with respectable finesse. The role of Mary is probably the toughest, because we have to accept such a devious user as the alpha female of the school. Puyallup High sophomore Kira Zinck is spot on here, blonde and glowing but ruthlessly egocentric. Gabriela Aleman brings sympathetic depth to the part of Mary's unwitting toady, Rosalie.

As for the accused, Maggie Lofquist (Viola in Lakewood's Twelfth Night) and Deya Ozburn have the requisite stage presence and skill. Unfortunately, their scenes fall victim to a clash in acting styles. It's a subtle problem, to be sure, and unlikely to sink the show, but (to use a glib oversimplification) Ozburn is more of an actor while Lofquist is more of a reactor. That resulted in beat after beat of evasive line readings followed by tearless crying on opening night. I suspect it's a problem that'll self-correct after several performances, but what I saw were actors, especially Ozburn, relying on no-doubt-reliable tics. Paul Richter finds moments as Lofquist's fiancé. Tech credits are lovely throughout, though the raised, hexagonal set casts a blind shadow on either side.

It's an unsettling fact of human nature that if a story is juicy enough, we believe it no matter what the evidence says. Think it doesn't apply now? Watch the gun control debate on Facebook, which claims Hitler was pro-gun-control. (If anything, he relaxed gun controls imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.) Think you're immune? If I say the name Richard Gere, what's the first biographical detail that springs to mind? The L word in Hellman's cautionary nightmare is "lie."