Back in 1934, Lillian Hellman explored the power of a lie in her first play, The Children's Hour. The subject matter caused quite a commotion: The two founders of a New England girls' school are falsely accused by a student of being lesbians. While this subject might have seemed quaintly out-of-date five years ago, today it is newly relevant, thanks to the obsession of religious fundamentalists with anything they consider gender-suspicious (paging SpongeBob and Tinky Wink).
Its story set in the private Wright-Dobie School for Girls, Hellman's script meanders rather slowly through the first two acts, establishing the two dedicated owner-instructors in question, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, along with their demon-seed pupil, Mary Tilford. Chilly, junior-high-age Mary is an Ann Coulter mini-me, bullying her trembling peers, conning her ditzy teacher (and part-time thespian), Mrs. Lily Mortar, and seeking a way to take revenge on the two women who see through her petulant, manipulative antics.
Mary finds her opening when she hears gossip about an argument between Martha and Lily, regarding Martha's sour attitude whenever Karen's fiancé, Dr. Joe, is in the vicinity. Lily accuses Martha of being jealous, and Mary builds that small nugget of truth into a boulder-sized lie, culminating in the false claim that she peeked through a keyhole and saw the two women kissing. Once Mary lays this whopper on her doting grandmother, the phones around town start ringing, and all the students are paraded out of the school by their morally offended parents. Then the play takes flight, with Dr. Joe accosting the elder Mrs. Tilford and interrogating Mary, while Karen and Martha helplessly watch their quiet, orderly world disintegrate.
What sets this production apart are the deft performances that director Sarah May is able to evoke from her cast. Even though the young girls are occasionally awkward, they keep their focus. As Mary, Heather Farr is cloyingly sweet when it suits her needs, but she also possesses a mean hammerlock and a glare that could melt titanium. Also good is slump-shouldered, weepy-eyed Julia Wilson as vulnerable Rosalie, Mary's school chum and hapless dupe, who is forced into supporting Mary's lies. Wilson's Rosalie is a walking flinch.
On the adult side, Jennifer Clifford and Kristie Lang hit the right tones as Karen and Martha, respectively. Their close relationship always feels natural, even as small hints are dropped -- a glance here, a touch there -- that someone's interests might extend beyond multiplication tables. This fragile ambiguity is paid off in Hellman's surprising, fast-moving, and melodramatic denouement. As virtually the only man on the set, Nicholas Koesters turns in an empathetic rendition of Dr. Joe, a man whose love for Karen has been tinged with doubt -- because even the most obvious lie has the power to undercut truth, especially in affairs of the heart.
Representing the fearsome power of gleaming self-righteousness, Rhoda Rosen is beautifully modulated as Mrs. Tilford, keeping her disgust and rage wrapped in upper-class dignity until the truth dawns, too late. And Mary Jane Nottage plays Lily Mortar as a flighty woman with an irritatingly detached sense of priorities, ignoring Martha's desperate pleas for help. Kate Duffield supplies a whiff of refreshing honesty as the candid maid in the Tilford household.
Scenic designer Don McBride makes use of every square foot of Beck Center's small Studio Theater, with a set that pivots in place to switch from schoolroom to drawing room. And the set changes are performed by the eight talented fourth- through eighth-graders in the cast, an activity that garnered applause from opening-night parents, who were evidently delighted to see their offspring carefully putting things back where they belong.
Ultimately, it would be a mistake to focus on the title of The Children's Hour and see it as a commentary on the wayward morals of young people. Often, children resort to dishonesty because it's their only way to get control of a scary and threatening world. But adults -- especially those in business and government -- usually lie to grasp a short-term advantage, frequently making the world scarier and more threatening as a result. Those are the lies that need to be shouted down by everyone, of every age.