The Children's Hour
TimeLine Theatre. By Lillian Hellman. Dir. Nick Bowling. With Mechelle Moe, Halena Kays.
Considering that it’s consistently produced and regarded as dignified enough to have a place on the shelf alongside (or at least near) great American plays, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 The Children’s Hour remains a deeply mysterious work. Unlike other dramas from the period about the repression of sexual longing and the scandal of secrecy, its complexities haven’t been entirely decoded or drained of meaning by the trendy crowds who take to activities like filtering all of Tennessee Williams’s characters through a queer-theory model. Director Nick Bowling does nothing to untie the knots in Hellman’s ambiguous world; if anything, his stark and sophisticated production pulls them tighter.
Inspired by a British libel case in which a spoiled youngster accused two school teachers of lesbianism, Hellman’s play is a sterling example of sympathy without sentimentality. Bowling follows this example and reinforces it. In casting Kays (a thoroughly unconventional stage presence whose piercing eyes and warm cluck of a voice seem incapable of lying) as a woman who doesn’t realize what she is until she’s accused of it, and Moe (a pretty, elusive blank canvas of an actress, finely utilized here) as an engaged, straitlaced young woman who can’t interpret her own feelings, the director taps the play’s central self-denial. (That he also gets excellent performances from several child actors is just gravy.) Although the transition from the realistic first act to the expressionistic second—in which Brian Sidney Bembridge’s gradually distressed set becomes its own revealing character —isn’t as seamless as it could be, TimeLine’s production still trembles with the terrifying confusion of real life.—Christopher Piatt