Originally produced in 1934, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour - the current presentation at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre - concerns a monstrous little boarding-school brat who falsely accuses her headmistresses of engaging in a lesbian affair, a charge that leads to parental panic, financial ruin, and the destruction of several lives. In an era that finds the Iowa Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage, Hellman's melodrama now seems more like a museum piece than it would have even two months ago, and so it was wise of director Patti Flaherty to set her production firmly in the past - even though that past feels less like the 20th Century than 400 BC.
This isn't meant as a criticism, or at least not a serious one; I don't know how anyone could stage Hellman's piece, with its hand-wringing hysteria and operatic intensity, without stylizing the hell out of it. The Children's Hour is a work of grand gestures and wild mood swings, of vicious arguments and fiercely emotional outbursts - it's like Medea if the title character were cast as a junior-high-schooler. Happily, though, Flaherty (who actually played Medea for Genesius Guild in 2007) and her leads don't shy away from the material's Greek-tragedy indulgences. Instead, they positively revel in them.
To be sure, the show isn't lacking in humor - any Children's Hour that opens with Maurice Chevalier singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" has its tongue planted at least near its cheek - and its introductory scene offers a smattering of good-natured laughs, with Barb Engstrom playing an impatient (and probably sloshed) nursemaid to a roomful of mildly disobedient, and definitely bored, pre-teens. A fading actress trying, as a temporary teacher, to instill in her students an appreciation for Shakespeare, Engstrom's Lily Mortar lends the production an early burst of zonked personality, and inadvertently sets the plot in motion when she chastises Mary Tilford (Anna Tunnicliff) for arriving late to class - a move that, we quickly gauge, will have disastrous consequences, particularly if the play's characters haven't seen The Bad Seed.
In short order, the hateful, vindictive Mary is seen bullying her fellow students, blackmailing a mousy classmate (a touching Stephanie Seward), and lying to her gullible grandmother, Amelia (the absolutely splendid Rae Mary), about a romantic relationship between boarding-school co-founders Karen Wright (Andrea Braddy) and Martha Dobie (Jamie Em Johnson). I'll admit, though, that this last event didn't carry a lot of dramatic heft for me, because from the start of Saturday's performance, I wasn't convinced that The Children's Hour was taking place in any kind of reality.
Lily had already been presented as a (delightful) stereotype, but Mary was so overtly evil that it seemed impossible that anyone - let alone her level-headed grandmother - could take her claims at all seriously. (At least the child's play-acting was referenced, and detested, by grandma's housekeeper, played by a wonderfully salty Susan Perrin-Sallak.) And in the opening scenes, the figures of Karen, Martha, and Karen's fiancé, Joseph (Bryan Woods), seemed barely to have been introduced to one another. Individually, the actors were vibrant and alert, but we were given too little sense of their characters' relationships to one another, and their conversations didn't sound terribly conversational; all three appeared outfitted with their own proscenium arches.
Yet both the production and the performers rally with a spectacularly entertaining, pre-intermission scene in which the headmistresses and Joseph square off against Amelia, and it's at this point that The Children's Hour snaps into focus - it just needed to allow its characters the chance to wail and shriek and attack. There's a special thrill in watching actors go for broke even under ludicrous circumstances, and after Mary's devious plot is finally put into motion, Braddy, Johnson, and Woods invest their roles with dazzling anger and outrage; Johnson, in particular, is devastating when revealing just how badly Martha wants to wring Mary's neck. (And Tunnicliff herself is at her best when throwing violent tantrums.) It seems to me that Hellman's play unravels in its final act - there's an unfortunate surfeit of moralistic scolding, abject helplessness, and a quality I can only describe as Ibsen - but the performers certainly play it for all it's worth, and even if you don't quite believe in their predicament, you have little choice but to believe in them.
Graced with smart costuming by Sara Laufer and some really ingenious set design by Jerry Wolking - I'd kill for that bookshelf that transforms into a liquor cabinet - The Children's Hour takes a while to get rolling, but it picks up considerable momentum and drive, and 75 years after its debut, it's still an admirably risky venture for its venue. (On Saturday, I was surprised, yet heartened, to hear only one audibly aghast reaction to the play's lone Sapphic gesture.) You may not necessarily buy much that happens in Playcrafters' latest, but the production is intently performed and compulsively watchable, even if you occasionally find yourself troubled by what it is you're watching.
For tickets and information, call (309)762-0330 or visit Playcrafters.com.