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'The Children's Hour'

Janeve West
02/10/2011
Allyson Frazier, Colleen Sinclair, Alexis Fulkerson perform a scene from the Crimson Masque production of “The Children’s Hour.”
The Monmouth College Crimson Masque will present Lillian Hellman’s classic drama “The Children’s Hour” Feb. 24 through Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the WIT Theatre, located on the lower level of the Haldeman-Thiessen Science Center. There will also be a matinee performance on Feb. 27 at 2 p.m.

Members of MC’s educational studies department will provide a pre-show discussion on the topic of bullying at 1 p.m. prior to the matinee performance. The discussion is free to the public, and refreshments will be provided.

Tickets are $6 for adults; $5 for students and senior citizens; and $4 for MC students, faculty and staff. They may be reserved by calling 309-457-2104 or by e-mailing theater@monmouthcollege.edu.

“The Children’s Hour” first opened on Broadway in 1937. Although there is conflicting information regarding the inspiration for the production, some say that the play was based on an essay titled “Closed Doors; or, the Great Drumsheugh Case.” That article discussed the true story of “two female teachers who were condemned by their community when a student alleged that they were having a homosexual affair.” This accusation, in the context of the 1930s, was devastating to the headmistresses’ careers and lives and resulted in tragedy.

The play follows Martha Dobie (Mary Bohlander) and Karen Wright (Colleen Sinclair) as they manage the trials and stresses of running an all-girls school on the grounds of a New England farmhouse. Mary Tilford (Ivy Bekker) is caught running away from the school and avoids punishment by accusing Dobie and Wright of having a lesbian affair. She passes this gossip to her grandmother, the influential Mrs. Ameila Tilford (Emily Frazier), who happens to be related to Dr. Joseph Cardin (Marcus Bailey), who is engaged to Wright. Mary Tilford’s manipulation, gossip and bullying spills over onto her classmates (Abigail Davis and Melissa O’Shea), despite the efforts of Agatha (Ariel Guerrero) to correct her behavior. Alexis Fulkerson, Courtney Jonsson and Chase Mowery also join this cast of characters who battle against the forces of bigotry and gossip that Tilford has created.

“The Children’s Hour” has come a long way from its turbulent premiere. When it first opened, any mention of homosexuality was banned from the stage in London and many U.S. cities. It opened in Paris and secured commercial success, playing for almost 700 performances.

Hellman continued writing through the 1950s and, though under scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee, went on to write a film adaptation of the work. It opened in 1961 and starred Audrey Hapburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner.

Hellman herself has left a lasting impact and is remembered for championing female playwrights and confronting topics once deemed unacceptable on the American stage. The production has become a staple in American theater and has also returned to the London stage, where a production starring Kiera Knightly and Elisabeth Moss opened last month.

When asked if a production that hit the stage 74 years ago could speak to a present day audience, the two leading actresses of the Monmouth College production were in agreement.

“Despite the time jump, people are still people,” said Bohlander. “We still have the same problems.”

“I think this is a timeless production,” said Sinclair. “Our society always manages to pass judgment on groups of people and this show speaks up against it.”

Audience members are advised to arrive early to the theater, as seating is limited. Due to adult language and situations, viewer discretion is advised.