Celebration Theater’s revival of Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” is a powerful piece of work. Although the social climate is different than it was when this drama debuted in 1934, the lingering tragedy and import of this production is that the events it displays could still happen now, that deceit and misguided righteousness are alive and well in this country. Director Matthew Bankston’s pacing and staging are lively, and the cast is exceptionally strong.
Mary (Stephanie Marquis), a little tyrant in the making, doesn’t like being disciplined by anyone, least of all her private school teachers. To this end she tells her grandmother, Mrs. Tilford (Laura Julian), an influential woman in the area, that her teachers may be lesbians.
Karen (Liz Pellini) and Martha (Sarah Taylor), the accused, decide to fight the false charges, but intolerance in the town takes its toll.
Taylor is stunningly good as Martha, delivering an intelligent and vibrant perf. The scene where she releases the full force of her hatred toward her relative Mrs. Mortar is potent in its raw fury, but it’s her rueful declaration of love for Karen and its evanescent depiction of a doomed heart laid bare that stays in the memory.
Pellini excels as Karen, particularly in the final act, when she not only has to re-examine her relationships with Martha and her fiance but also has to redefine herself and her future.
Marquis is darkly amusing as budding monster Mary, steely will concealed behind phony innocence, and Robyn Scrivener is very funny as her hapless conspirator, Rosalie. Donna Pieroni is excellent as drama queen Mrs. Mortar, a wounded comic dynamo, and John Mullen brings wonderful compassion and fiery anger to his perf as Dr. Cardin. Julian is very fine as the misled Tilford, and Whitney Powell delivers a nuanced and completely believable perf as one of the students, Peggy.
Kurt Boetcher’s set starts off seeming pleasantly woody and cozy, but as the play goes on, the geometric shapes hanging above the characters begin to look like the judgmental eyes of the community, and the blackboard backdrop — full of written accusations — effectively represents the angry voices of repression.