By LORRAINE WARDLE
While bullying and gossip are hot topics in schools and the media today, they are certainly not new concerns.
In 1934, Lillian Hellman explored these themes in her play “The Children’s Hour,” which ran on Broadway in the 1930s and ’50s. The dramatic production is currently being staged at the Oakland Center for the Arts.
“The Children’s Hour” is set in Massachusetts on a farm-turned-school for girls founded by teachers Martha and Karen. Among the pupils is Mary Tilford, a young girl who seems to enjoy causing trouble. After being scolded, Mary runs home to her grandmother and begs not to be sent back. When Mrs. Tilford resists, Mary accuses her teachers of being lovers. This accusation causes a chain reaction that ends in the professional and personal demise of the two teachers.
Though the play is nearly 80 years old, its themes are still relevant today. The injustice associated with gossip and prejudice is clear. Unfortunately, the script itself is not so fresh. The entire first act feels like exposition, yet the characters seem only half-formed. Also, much of the action takes place offstage and is only described by the characters. Though the script left something to be desired, the actors still shined.
Mary James and Victoria Lubonovich play the teachers, Martha and Karen. James delivered a realistic performance as Martha, creating a sympathetic and complex character. Lubonovich was likewise a steady player, delivering a quieter, but equally emotional performance.
Brandon Smith gave a strong performance as Joe, Karen’s fianc e, and Dana Dunnavant was also impressive as Mrs. Tilford. The two are obviously seasoned performers, as the scenes between them went the most smoothly.
Miranda Canacci played young Mary Tilford with passion, and Leigh Cox was perfect as Martha’s self- obsessed aunt.
While the cast was obviously talented, they could not overcome the overly dramatic script that often felt plodding. The play began with decent pacing, but slowed to a crawl by the end of the second act. Often, the timing was off as actors spoke over one another’s lines, trailed off, or left huge pauses between lines.
Director Cleric Costes clearly had a specific vision for his play. The stage was set with very minimal pieces in black and dark gray, which gave the play a very bleak feeling. To add to the austerity, the actors were costumed in only black, white and shades of gray. Costes even enlisted make-up designer Kelly Sullivan to paint the actors’ faces in stark white and gray. While the idea of gray-faced make-up is intriguing, the execution was distracting. The white faces were too obvious and, with the combination of their flesh-colored hands, gave the impression that the actors were wearing masks.
Overall, Costes and his cast delivered a performance that was as grim and serious as the subject matter.
“The Children’s Hour” continues Friday and Saturday and May 24 and 25 at 8 pm at the Oakland Center for the Arts, 220 West Boardman St. in Youngstown. For reservations, call 330-746-0404.