By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Director Cleric Costes will strike a dark and minimalist tone for “The Children’s Hour,” which opens Friday at the Oakland Center for the Arts.
The chilling play, written by Lillian Hellman in 1934, shows how a young girl’s vindictive manipulations can ruin lives.
It takes place at a Massachusetts farm-turned-girls-school. Gossip, blackmail, jealousy, lies and bullying lead to dire consequences when two teachers are accused of having a sexual affair. Because any mention of homosexuality was illegal on a New York stage at the time Hellman wrote the play, the story is told through subtle dialogue and implication, which adds to its dark intrigue.
To capture these themes, Costes is using a minimalistic set done entirely in black and gray tones and sparsely furnished. The cast is costumed in black, white and gray.
The goal, said Costes, is to put the focus solely on the motivations, actions and reactions of the characters. Every movement is highlighted in the bare environment.
Mary M. James and Victoria Lubonovich take on the lead roles of the accused teachers, Martha Dobie and Karen Wright. Dana Dunnavant plays the loving but imposing Mrs. Tilford, and Miranda Canacci portrays her scheming and vengeful grandaughter, Mary. Leigh Cox, Brandon Smith and Tricia Terlesky round out the adult roles in the cast. The girls include Chloe Housteau, Madison Gulfo, Hannah Nitzsky, Jansen Hykes, Selena Phillips, Sierra Smith and Elsie Kibler.
At first glance, “The Children’s Hour” might call to mind “Spring Awakening,” the rock-scored musical presented earlier this season by the Oakland. Both pieces touch on the tormented state of adolescent students in a rigid social setting and deal with sexual issues. And both have minimalist sets.
Costes sees the similarity, but he said the path he took to getting there was entirely different.
The color palette for “The Children’s Hour” uses only blacks, whites and grays, with a few small instances of red. But that’s where any and all similarities to “Spring Awakening” end, said Costes.
By stripping the world of “The Children’s Hour” of color and erasing details of the physical world, audiences will be drawn into the internal rather than the external.
“After all, they have nowhere else to look,” said Costes.
“There have been some beautiful sets designed this year across all the theaters in Youngstown,” he continued. “But I was curious to see what would happen if I removed this. Could I still engage an audience used to seeing meticulous design?”
Regardless of their reaction, Costes thinks audiences will come away with tremendous respect for the actors.
“They have so few props to manipulate and so very little furniture that it actually amplifies all the subtle movements they do,” he said. “On a big set filled with colorful mis-en-scene, you would miss an actress nervously tucking her hair behind her ear, for instance. But in this production, with nothing to distract you, you’ll pick up that movement out of the corner of your eye and zero in on it. The actors have nowhere to hide, and they are exposed to the audience.”
An ever-shrinking lighting design also is employed to create a growing sense of claustrophobia.
“As those figurative walls close in, the characters become more and more trapped by their circumstances,” said Costes. “In their desperation, they begin to reveal themselves simply by leaning away from each other for half of a second. This enables the issues of sexuality and deceit to become a tool wielded cruelly by one of the characters to strip the rest of them to the bone and expose them for what they are.
“It’s a fascinating show when you look at it through a modern lens, and that’s what we’re attempting to do,” he said.