When Lillian Hellman wrote the touching drama "The Children's Hour," she broke a taboo or two on Broadway — after all, it was 1934.
But it probably didn't occur to her to have the pair of young women who are accused of lesbianism be portrayed by one actress and one actor in drag.
Someone did think of it, and now H. Lee Gable is directing actress Cam Magee and actor Christopher Henley as the couple victimized by the accusations of a student at their private prep school. The revival, a production of the Washington Shakespeare Company, plays at their Clark Street Playhouse just north of Crystal City through July 2.
Gable presents a rather streamlined version of the play, honing the
structure and the dialogue just a bit to speed up the action and make it a two-act play lasting just about two hours.
More complete, and traditionally cast, three-act revivals have been well received recently, most notably a 2005 production at Rep Stage in Columbia. There was also a substantial and fairly faithful mounting by Firebelly Productions at Arlington's Theatre on the Run that same year.
The play was Hellman's first Broadway play. She went on to contribute nine more, including "The Little Foxes" and "Watch on the Rhine," as well as the book for the musical "Candide." "The Children's Hour" was greeted with admiration for its writing as well as a bit of shock over its inclusion of lesbianism in its plot structure.
The play was never about lesbianism, however. It was an examination of the damage that a lie can do to innocent people. The accusation leveled by a rotten child (think "The Bad Seed") brings tragedy to many, including the two teachers/school administrators who are the accused. The nature of the accusation wasn't the point - at least not in the text. In this revised revival, however, the sexuality of the accused becomes a key element.
Christopher Henley, the Washington Shakespeare Company's Artistic Director and a highly regarded actor in the local community, has played women before. His work in the all-male cast version of Jean Genet's "The Maids" at this theater in 2002 was impressive and effective. Here, on the other hand, his fluttering hands, swishing hips and slightly elevated voice seem artificial enough to give rise to at least the suspicion that the student who spreads the rumor of lesbianism might not be lying - and this unbalances the entire piece.
Gable's direction and Henley's performance add to the confusion over the truth or falsity of the story the girl tells by signaling a possibly repressed but clearly felt attraction on Henley's character's part for the other teacher involved, played with earnestness by veteran actress Cam Magee.
ANOTHER PIECE OF cross-casting further complicates matters as Gable has actor Jay Hardee in skirts but actress Dana Edwards in knickers as the "Grocery Boy." Hardee is, in fact, very effective in his work as "Rosalie," one of the students at the girls school, but the casting still threatens to turn "The Children's Hour" into a segment of "Charlie's Aunt," which does damage to the structure of the play.
Annie Houston is giving a fine performance in the role of the grandmother to whom the "lie" is first told. She has to leave the show, however, on June 25. After that date, Jan Boulet will take over the role of the bible-clutching activist who spreads the venom of her granddaughter's tale.
Remaining throughout the run is William Aitken as the doctor engaged to be married to Magee's character and Suzanne Richard as Henley's aunt who has been sponging off the pair as they get their prep school launched.
Abby Wood's work as the girl who tells the "terrible lie" would probably be more effective if, in fact, her character hadn't any reason to suspect that it might be simply an embellished version of truth that she tells her grandmother and forces Hardee's "Rosalie" to reaffirm.
As it is, an effective play about the evil a lie can unleash has become a weakened hybrid — an anti-lying, pro-privacy piece.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.