THE CHILDREN'S HOUR "IS REALLY not a play about lesbianism, but about a lie," playwright Lillian Hellman insisted to an interviewer in 1952. In Hellman's 1934 Broadway hit -- now being revived in an intense, beautifully acted production by TimeLine Theatre -- the lives of two teachers, Karen and Martha, are ruined when a pupil in their New England girls' school spreads a false rumor that they're lovers. The scandal costs the pair their livelihoods and their reputations. Karen's stalwart fiance, Joe, abandons her. All that remains is the women's friendship. But that too is destroyed when Martha acknowledges that she does love Karen "that way" -- then heads offstage to shoot herself.
Maybe Hellman did consider lesbianism just a plot device. But "unnatural" love and society's disapproval of it are fundamental to the play, just as anti-Semitism is central to The Merchant of Venice. Audiences still argue over whether Shakespeare was criticizing or endorsing the prejudice Shylock endures, and the homosexual element in The Children's Hour stirs similar debate.
Despite its original New York success, The Children's Hour was banned in 1935 in several cities, including Chicago, and William Wyler's 1936 film version, scripted by Hellman, bowed to censorship by turning the scandal into heterosexual infidelity. Wyler restored the original sin in his 1961 remake, and titillating ad copy read "What made these women different? Did Nature play an ugly trick and endow them with emotions contrary to those of normal young women?"
Today the play's depiction of a guilt-ridden, suicidal dyke might seem laughable or offensive -- "politically prehistoric," as a recent Tribune feature said. But The Children's Hour is far less dated than that. Consider the conflicts within the Catholic, Episcopal, and other churches and the efforts around the country to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage. Evangelist Ted Haggard's recent fall from grace illustrates the pain and self-destruction that can result from denying one's nature. Far ahead of her time, Hellman dared to suggest that her characters' tragedy was rooted not in sexuality but in homophobia, both external and internalized. "It isn't a new sin they tell us we've done. Other people aren't destroyed by it," says Karen. "They are the people who believe in it, who want it, who've chosen it for themselves," replies tortured, self-loathing Martha.
The Children's Hour -- Hellman's first play, written when she was 26 -- is also crackling good drama, a work of tragic force in director Nick Bowling's sensitive hands. Key to this production's success is Bowling's decision to employ two contrasting styles. He treats the long, eventful first half as naturalistic drama, crisply pacing the introduction of more than a dozen characters, including malevolent student Mary, seven other schoolgirls, and Mary's aristocratic grandmother, who leads the charge against the suspected lesbians. But in the claustrophobic second half, which focuses on Karen and Martha, Bowling imposes an understated, uncompromising, Beckettian austerity that supports Hellman's terse, fragmented dialogue. Brian Sidney Bembridge's schoolroom set, earlier a pleasant if scruffy environment, is now a bleak space empty except for white chairs. In an ingenious stroke, Bowling has Karen stack these against the doorway in a futile attempt to prevent the outside world from intruding. Also surreal is his choice to overlap two key scenes near the end of the play -- Joe leaving Karen and the final confrontation between her and Martha. Jesse Klug's dreamlike lighting and Lindsey Pate's costumes enhance the second half's hallucinatory quality: reversing the usual color scheme associated with innocence and guilt, Pate has Karen wear black clothes smeared with white paint and Martha a white, almost bridal lace dress.
Honest acting intensifies Bowling's concept. Mechelle Moe's Karen is a smart but sheltered academic stunned not only by the scandal but by her inability to comprehend and control it. Halena Kays's flat, slightly rushed delivery as Martha suggests the tension and depression of a woman troubled by a part of herself she hasn't been allowed to explore. As Mary, 14-year-old Zanny Laird isn't a caricatured monster but a spiteful, sad neurotic. On-target performances by the other children add credibility to the charged action. Sean Sullivan is just right as Joe, a decent man infected by suspicion; as Martha's eccentric aunt, Mary O'Dowd adds comic relief that turns subtly dangerous. And Ann Wakefield is blistering as Mary's grandmother, whose campaign against the teachers brings her to tragic self-understanding. This low-budget non-Equity production -- as good a show as the best at major regional theaters -- reaffirms the power of this theatrical landmark.
RUNNING IN REPERTORY with The Children's Hour is Lillian, William Luce's one-woman portrait of Hellman. Directed by Louis Contey, it's a tour de force in Janet Ulrich Brooks's charismatic, perfectly modulated performance.
Luce -- a specialist in biographical solo shows whose other subjects have included Emily Dickinson and John Barrymore -- sets the play in a New York hospital in 1961, a date that allows him to ignore the nastiness that surrounded Hellman in later years, when rival writer Mary McCarthy declared on TV that "every word she writes is a lie, including `and' and `the.'" The middle-aged Hellman is awaiting news of her longtime lover, novelist Dashiell Hammett, who's dying of cancer. Reminiscing, she offers a few showbiz anecdotes about friends like Dorothy Parker and Tallulah Bankhead, but she focuses more on her New Orleans childhood. (Her German-Jewish forebears inspired the avaricious family in The Little Foxes and its prequel, Another Part of the Forest, now running at Writers' Theatre.) She recalls -- and impersonates -- her blustery father, flighty mother, and a beloved black servant whose quiet rage at racism helped foster Hellman's own rebellious independence and fierce opposition to injustice. She talks about her sometimes violent anger at Hammett's infidelities, their shared battle with alcoholism. And she recounts her 1952 appearance before Joe McCarthy's red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee, which prompted her famous statement that "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."
With her proud bearing, sharply etched features, and piercing intelligence, Brooks completely inhabits Hellman in the prime of life. She's tough and vulnerable, sardonic and rueful -- an unfinished woman, as Hellman titled her memoir, and an unforgettable one.