Theater Review: In Fake News Era, Gamm's 'Children's Hour' Has Modern Resonance

Jan 25, 2017

Way back in 1934, Lillian Hellman's “The Children's Hour” was a shocker. Produced in New York,  it was banned in Boston, Chicago and London. Now the Gamm Theatre has revived the drama, and Rhode Island Public Radio's Bill Gale says it's worth it. 

Yes, but it's a funny thing about “The Children's Hour.” On one hand this play concerning a malicious teenager who – among other things - ruins the lives of two teachers at a private school is clearly a work of it's time.

Hellman's three-act work (done in two longish acts at the Gamm) is a melodramatic piece with a capital “M”. Long periods of dialog – even done at a brisk pace – simply slow this 83-year-old play significantly.

Early on, you find yourself wondering if the play will ever get to its point, if f it will pick up it's pace -- please!

Eventually, “The Children's Hour” begins to take hold. It catches you, setting up a certain connection not just to 1934 but clearly – to me at least – to 2017.  “The Children's Hour,” you see, takes the attitude that lying can, all to often, be poisonous. The teenager lies, a grandmother lies, the two teachers manage to hide their own truths. Why, even the 1930s un-true view of a cranky-funny Irish maid is thrown about.

The thrust becomes clear. Director Rachel Walshe has said she sees the play as concerning the protection of children. Others see it as a picture of anti-gay hatred. I find it, overall, about the terrible damage that falsity can bring about. Make a lie. Keep it up. Let others get involved. And you may well watch the drowning of decent people, bad people, gay people, straight people, all kinds of folks.

Is it too much of a stretch, then, to look at a lying teenager in the 1930s and to move on to such things as “Fake News?” Or even the un-true, and all to often, unsigned, views espoused on Twitter and Facebook? I don't think so.

At the Gamm, Madeline Lambert  and Karen Carpenter play the teachers with considerable humanness. They are both youngish women struggling to make their way in a man's world and to work out their own difficult relationship. They nicely display the mixed feeling that playwright Hellman certainly wanted to show.

Wendy Overly plays the grandmother with, well, grand-motherly high energy, tough control and, eventually, a loss as great as anyone else.

Another Gamm veteran, Casey Seymour Kim, brings a character called Aunt Lily on with all sorts of broad drive. At first, you think, “oh, that's a bit much.” But eventually, you come to appreciate the goofiness.

And, as the teenager, Grace Viveires, a senior in high school herself, brings considerable power, viciousness and fear to the child. Her strength is that she, somehow, makes the wicked teen someone you could care for, despite it all.

Which is kind of how you might feel about “The Children's Hour”  For all it's overwrought drive, it's obvious out of touch length, it is a play that all Americans ought to be able to recognize.

It's a work of art that had something to say in 1934 and still can speak out in 2017.

“The Children's Hour” continues at the Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket through February 12th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.