Preview by Jaz Dorsey
Lesbians, sociopaths and malignant morality dominate the stage, and femininity is betrayed, in Jon Hallquist's production of THE CHILDREN'S HOUR at Vanderbilt.
Lilian Hellman is my favorite playwright of her generation - Jewish and Southern, from New Orleans, she shoots from the hip and, while she personifies independence, her life long affair with Dashiell Hammet is one of the great love stories of the existential age. THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is a play about women that no man could ever have written, a play about lesbianism that premiered in 1934, when it was actually illegal in New York to deal with the subject of homosexuality in the theatre, Lilian Hellman was an early harbinger of edginess on the American Stage.
The script has some challenges for the contemporary actor. For one thing, even though the language is basically contemporary, it's also bizarrely archaic - it's something about the sentence structure. And it's a "drama" in the pure sense of the word as it was understood in the days of O'Neill, Williams and Miller. It can make you uncomfortable, but it's the kind of discomfort that comes with a scandal and scandal can be very addictive.
My mentor, who was a set designer, taught me this - to have great theatre you need great actors with a great script in the right costumes, and the first thing I want to commend here is the costumes. The identical girls school uniforms are kind of creepy in a Wednesday Adams-esque way and the rest of the characters all looked like they got up and dressed themselves on the morning in question.
The next thing my mentor taught me was that you need physical things onstage that speak to the world of the play. Hallquist's version, set "in the round" involves some lovely furniture pieces which bring a kind of Gothic feel to the evening. There are also old timey radios which are meant to be the source of the unusual soundtrack and, as these radios are spotlighted at the end of scenes, there presence adds to the mystery of the voices that haunt the people in this place. The female vocal version of I CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE WITH YOU comes off like something you might have heard in a 50s lesbian bar, had there been such a thing.
The first act belongs to Madeline Mooney, who is truly off her meds as Mary Tilford. Mooney finesses every wicked turn in Mary's machinations and manipulations. Carly Schwartz pipes in with equal fervor as Mary's minion Rosalie and the scene where Mary blackmails Rosalie in front of everyone else may well just be one of my favorite theatre moments of all time.
As Martha Dobie, Madeline Fansler has some very Meryl Streep qualities. Her performance is the one that tears your heart out.
In the heterosexual corner of the love triangle, Nicole Williams and Nathan Rose are nicely matched as a pair of lovers caught up in a long term betrothal that just won't seem to culminate in a wedding before it's too late.
Because of her youth and loveliness, it took me a moment to adjust to Charlotte Otremba as the grandmother, but she grew on me. Sarah Corapi as Agatha (Grandmother's housekeeper) is kinda scary.
Beau Bassewitz has a sharp turn as a licentious grocery boy and Laura Winston is over the top as Mrs. Lily Mortar, teacher of elocution.
To the young actresses who flush out the student populations of the girls school, I would say that you make lovely 5th graders.
To learn more about the Vanderbilt University theatre program, please click the post's title.