Theater: Complex Melodrama

‘The Children’s Hour’ balances heart and intellect

When done well, melodramas can be really good theater.

That was the thought that lingered in my mind as I exited Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) Barn Theatre last weekend after a stirring opening night performance of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. For something like two hours, I observed the intense connection that the play made with the packed house. Even if restrained by contemporary norms of decorum, the reaction at major turning points was palpable and the ringing applause during cast bows reinforced my conviction.

Of course, The Children’s Hour is not the pure melodrama of the 19th and early 20th centuries, with its dastardly villain, comely damsel in distress and robust hero to the rescue. It’s far more complex psychologically and dramaturgically than that. But there is just enough of the exaggerated characters and overwrought situations that are hallmarks of the genre to provoke the emotional response that made these antecedents so popular. In her first play to have a professional New York production (November, 1934), Hellman displays a canny sense of how to balance heart and intellect.

Balance is also evident in Neiry Rojo’s direction at RVP. Children’s overall theme—that malicious gossip can ruin lives and provoke tragic consequences—is clearly identified, but in a non-didactic manner that allows the audience to overlook the author’s occasional lapses of credibility while developing a visceral connection with what is being presented on stage.

To some extent, Hellman’s narrative undoubtedly reflects her own experience when, as a young girl with parents absent most of the time, she spent half the year at a girls’ school in New Orleans, where she experienced the effects of bullying and groupthink, and the other half living with a devoted but naive aunt in New York City. She also drew heavily on a true crime anthology by William Roughead and acknowledges the influence of an 1810 court case that involved similar issues.

Hellman’s protagonists, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie (ably portrayed by Laura Peterson and Joanna Cretella) are longtime friends who decide to convert a decrepit old building into a small girls’ boarding school that features a caring relationship between students and teachers. In the play’s opening scene, things are going relatively smoothly, except for the irritating presence of Martha’s Aunt Lily (a true drama queen played by Rachel Kayhan), and the news that Karen is contemplating marriage to Joseph, the school’s doctor (Elliott Hanson), who is related to one of its most important sponsors, Amelia Tilford (a perfectly cast Tamar Cohn). That prospect is disconcerting for Martha, who fears, despite Karen’s denials, that it will interfere with the close relationship that the two women have had for many years. An argument between them is overheard by two of the girls, who misinterpret it as a lovers’ quarrel and then pass on the mistake to their comrades. Among the latter is Mary Tilford (a dynamic Chloe Wales on opening night, alternating with Heather Davis), Amelia’s granddaughter, whose well-developed persecution complex propels her to launch a plot using the apparent scandal to discredit the two teachers.

With its large ensemble and intricate storyline, The Children’s Hour is a notable achievement for RVP. In the interest of not being a spoiler for those who attend, I’ll leave my synopsis here, except to add that, to Hellman’s credit, there are no dastardly villains or robust heroes in this play, only a lament that we humans seem to have a very hard time distinguishing fact from fiction—which, as we are reminded every day, can easily lead to disastrous consequences.

NOW PLAYING: The Children’s Hour runs through February 11 at Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555;

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