Whitney Morse, Nora Lisa Ulrey, Nelson A. Rodriguez, and Britni Tozzi in The Children's Hour
Whitney Morse, Nora Lisa Ulrey, Nelson A. Rodriguez, and Britni Tozzi in The Children's Hour Credit: David Zak

“People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York—a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children,” wrote Washington Post opinion writer Richard Cohen on November 11, 2013, speaking of the election of Bill de Blasio to succeed Michael Bloomberg as the Big Apple’s big kahuna. Added Cohen, parenthetically: “(Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?)”

The comment was gratuitous, ugly, stupid, and embarrassing. Yet I find it significant that, for Cohen, McCray’s past self-identification as gay was less troubling than her marriage to a white man. When a reactionary like Cohen regards interracial heterosexual marriage as worse than homosexuality, it would seem that even “conventional” America really has entered some sort of new moral territory, for better and for worse.

I was reminded of Cohen’s column while watching Pride Films and Plays’ new revival of The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 drama about two women accused of having an affair. Pride Films and Plays is devoted to work centered on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues; The Children’s Hour has often been criticized for the violent resolution of its lesbian content.

The play focuses on a pair of female schoolteachers—Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, friends since college—who operate a girls’ boarding school in New England. Karen is engaged to a local doctor, Joe Cardin, who just happens to be related to a wealthy dowager, Amelia Tilford, whose spoiled granddaughter, Mary, attends the school. Mary—a brat, bully, and compulsive liar—tells Mrs. Tilford . . .  Well, we don’t exactly know what she tells Mrs. Tilford; the accusation is whispered. But clearly it convinces Mrs. Tilford that Karen and Martha’s relationship is “unnatural” and “sinful.” The horrified old woman spreads the word to the families of the other students, and Karen and Martha’s lives and careers are ruined.

Worse—spoiler alert—the false accusation forces Martha to recognize the truth about herself. “I have loved you the way they said,” she tells Martha (the emphatic italics are from Hellman’s script). “I’ve got to tell you how guilty I am.” Then, to clinch it: “I’ve never loved a man—I never knew why before.” Martha is destroyed—not only by her latent lesbianism but by her repression of it. “This isn’t a new sin they tell us we’ve done. Other people aren’t destroyed by it,” Karen says to comfort her friend, but Martha’s having none of it: “They are the people who believe in it, who want it, who’ve chosen it.” Offstage she goes, and a moment later a gunshot tells us she’s committed suicide—the usual fate for queer characters in American plays and movies all the way up to the 1960s.

The story—suggested to novice playwright Hellman by her lover Dashiell Hammett—was inspired by a real case of two schoolteachers accused of lesbianism. In Scotland. In 1810. Yet the play resonated with real life in its own day—at least among people “in the know”— by recalling educator Nancy Cook and her life partner, Marion Dickerman, operators of the elite Todhunter School in New York. Cook and Dickerman were part of a progressive feminist circle that also included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who lived with the lovers at exactly the time The Children’s Hour was written and produced.

In our age of Facebook outings and same-sex marriage, The Children’s Hour‘s depiction of whispered secrets about “the love that dare not speak its name” could seem dated, but the play’s enduring strength is Hellman’s crackling dialogue and relentless building of suspense—melodramatic but undeniably effective—and its incisive depiction of how a trivial rumor can inspire panic and paranoia. Indeed, the play often anticipates Arthur Miller’s anti-McCarthyism allegory The Crucible, written almost 20 years later, in which a 17th-century teenager’s accusations of witchcraft trigger paranoid panic.

In the first two scenes, director Derek Bertelsen suggests a stylized, surrealistic approach to the 80-year-old script by having Mary’s classmates, in their starched school uniforms, act as a sort of silent Greek chorus, moving in a circle and making symbolic gestures that suggest the infectious power of whispered gossip. But as the action builds, Bertelsen shifts back into a naturalistic mode, which places the burden of believability on the actors, and here the erratically paced production is inconsistent. Nora Lise Ulrey as Mary is simply over-the-top; her tantrums are so extreme that it’s hard to believe no one recognizes her for a psychopath. Luckily, Joan McGrath brings credibility with her rock-solid sincerity as Mrs. Tilford, even making viewers feel sympathy for her despite her actions.

The key to the script is the dynamic established between Karen and Martha, played by Britni Tozzi and Whitney Morse, respectively. Morse’s rushed speech rhythms rob her dialogue of needed gravity (and sometimes obscure her lines). When she finally explodes in her confessional speech it seems to come out of nowhere. Nor is there any sense of her evolving sexual self-awareness. One could even infer that Martha isn’t actually a lesbian but has merely been caught up in the hysteria generated by Mary’s lies. Still, I liked her sense of calm purpose as she makes her final exit—though the puny gunshot sound effect robs her offstage suicide of the required power.

The show’s strongest scene is Karen’s confrontation with her fiance, Joe (Nelson Rodriguez), whose growing suspicion that Karen is guilty as charged festers like an emotional cancer. Tozzi’s quiet determination as she resolves to test Joe to the limit is riveting; it’s hard for an actor to cry onstage convincingly, especially in such a small theater, but Tozzi pulls it off. If the rest of the show achieved this scene’s tragic intensity, The Children’s Hour could be gripping theater; as it is, it’s a solid if uneven rendition of an important landmark in American theater.

Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect director Derek Bertelsen’s full name and role in the production.