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St. Louis by Richard Green

The Children's Hour
The Webster University Conservatory of Theater Arts

The Children's Hour
Melissa Weyn and Shaina Schrooten
Two and a half years ago I was in Los Angeles, and happened to see the movie Psycho on the big screen, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. But the reception it got from the audience at the Alex Theater in Glendale proved to be the biggest shock of the night.

The people in that audience hooted and howled and made a great show of having moved on, treating Alfred Hitchcock's great drive-in horror movie as a piece of dubious camp. It was not the gregarious "ownership" of queer history, though. It was more like Stonewall with popcorn.

Anthony Perkins' crushed and tortured yearnings became the stuff of contempt, half-a-century later: his Norman Bates, mooning over John Gavin, or his equally awkward explanation of his very close relationship with his mother (to poor Janet Leigh) had been frozen in time, while his audience went on to figure things out for themselves. And now, it's much harder to lock anyone in any kind of closet, celluloid or otherwise, thank goodness. The movie may not have aged so well, but what do you do with other stories, or a great old theatrical play that's much older? A drama that actually has a brain and studies homophobia from all angles?

Fortunately, live theater is very different from film, and can make some concessions to modern tastes. But, still, director Tim Ocel knows you secretly want the bad girls in The Children's Hour to be as bad as they can be, and the good girls to be as good as they can manage to be, for as long as they can manage it. And, as a result, Lillian Hellman's 1934 play is every bit as strong as it can be in this new production, and just as psychologically up-to-date as it must be, to avoid campiness. Ocel does make a few modern directorial choices (to ease us into the big dramatic scenes ahead) that I will grudgingly admit I liked as well. But, even with those few debatable decisions, considering all the talent on stage, and in its design, and with all the resources of a prestigious university behind it, it really ends up being a $40 show for just $12 a pop.

It all begins with the ominous ticking of a dry, hollow grandfather clock—to acknowledge the enormous gulf of nearly 80 years since the play's premiere. It also reminds us that a lot of people in this college audience will have very little idea about the harassment, the humiliation, the beatings or arrests, and the seemingly endless years of existential angst that gays and lesbians routinely experienced growing up, that were mostly left behind in the 20th century. You might even hear a little bit of persistent laughter around you in the audience, over the scandal on stage, and the whispering up there, behind little girl hands. But it's a defiant kind of audience laughter, like I heard at that Psycho anniversary. And yet somehow it sounds a little forced, a bit pretentious, and even a little unfair, in this case. It also may just be the by-product of all the built-up tension. Anyway, laughter or no, this is all a lot more scary than my last visit to the Bates Motel.

The first scene could actually have come straight out of a horror film—a bunch of adolescent girls (actually college-aged actresses, with their breasts taped down, which somehow sounds very Hollywood-Horror to me) and a ridiculous authority figure, sprawled out, fast asleep in a big cozy chair, while the girls are carrying on. What more do you need to know? Things are about to get dangerously out of hand.

But it all began with the best intentions: Melissa Weyn and Shaina Schrooten are excellent as the two young women who started a school for girls in an isolated rural area. In act two, Lauren Motil is perfect as the thoughtful, well-to-do grandmother of a larger-than-life troublemaker at the Wright-Dobie School for Girls.

And, though actress Becca Andrews is 100% terrific as that little brat, director Ocel dresses her up to look suspiciously like The Bad Seed, a girl with blonde dolly curls that Lillian Hellman also equips with a vicious streak a mile wide. You almost expect her to be putting a roller skate on the steps, as she pleads for her grandmother's help. So here's the challenge: see if you can watch the first half of this production of The Children's Hour as two movies running on the same screen at the same time. It's partly the story of an epoch of great, irrational suffering, and partly Mommie Dearest, upside-down. If you can accommodate those two things in your head at the same time, you'll do just fine, till the real fireworks begin.

Mary Rinderspacher (who bears an interesting resemblance to Mary Astor) is terrific as a faded actress whose fear and ineptitude play out to a horrible conclusion, after Ms. Motil's gracious dowager-empress makes an unfortunate decision. Both of these young actresses are shockingly good at playing older women from the 1930s—let's just hope they also get to play someone their own age (in their own era too) one of these days.

There's a ghastly sort of courtroom scene, half-way through, barely controlled by the first-rate Charlie Ingram (as Ms. Weyn's fiancÚ), where the girls' accusations of moral turpitude are very closely examined. But because no one in that scene ever completely rules out the one-percent possibility that Ms. Weyn and Ms. Schrooten's characters might possibly be same-sex lovers in the 1930s, a kind of sexual Stalinism takes root. There's a whispering campaign, and cruel denouncing, and what might be best described as an "economic deportation." And (yes) even worse. Throughout, Ms. Weyn and Ms. Schrooten are heart-wrenching in their portrayals, and too intelligent not to know that something invisible and irrational and unstoppable is destroying them.

A few subversive directorial decisions (which I "grudgingly admired") might seem awkward in the early going. Outside of the director's control, there is that slightly weird, superior bit of audience laughter that probably can't be helped, 78 years later, and which dogged Psycho too. But then there's also the delivery of Hellman's staid dialog, updated with the cadences of modern conversation on the stage. It takes some getting used to. And there's just something almost expressionistically wicked about that little girl (Ms. Andrews), rising to Blofeldian stature, taken to the absolute limit, without quite brushing against parody. She really needs to be stroking a white Persian cat, as she crushes her next victim (the outstanding Alicia Smith), and it actually works very beautifully (in a hideous sort of way). But you can tell they all just looked at the script, shrugged their shoulders, and decided to go for broke. Thank goodness Ms. Andrews is up to the challenge.

Anyway, all that fades into the background once we get to the "political show-trial" and its aftermath, which make this an indispensable piece of living American drama. And, suddenly, we find ourselves in a post-post-Stonewall world, where we can actually stop and see what happened to our grandparents, and to our parents, and to us. And see why. And begin again, by picking up the pieces.

(I also would like to say how wonderful the wigs are, by Liane Hunkeler, but you might think I'm being silly. They are wonderful, though. The set is very "un-Gothic," for the horror it enhances, adding a surprising dimension to the teachers' feelings of being trapped in an off-kilter world.)

Through October 7, 2012, at the Emerson studio theater, downstairs in the same building that houses the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Rd, in Webster Groves. You can park two blocks north for free, on Lockwood, or pay a couple of dollars to park in a lot just uphill from the theater building. For more information visit them online at http://www.webster.edu/depts/finearts/theatre/Assets/Conservatory/Conservatory/Season.html or call (314) 968-7128.

Cast
Karen Wright: Melissa Weyn
Martha Dobie: Shaina Schrooten
Doctor Joseph Cardin: Charlie Ingram
Mrs. Amelia Tilford: Lauren Motil
Agatha: Jocelyn O'Keefe
Rosalie Wells: Alicia Smith
Peggy Rogers: Hillary Brainerd
Evelyn Munn: Meagan Stevenson
Catherine: Charlotte Byrd
Helen Burton: Lauren Goldberger
Lois Fisher: Madeline Lauzon
Janet: Eden Eernissee
Leslie: Alyssa Peterson
A Grocery Boy: Jimmy Betts

Crew
Director: Tim Ocel
Scenic Designer: Myra Giorgi
Costume Designer: Cynthia McDonald
Lighting Designer: Shelby Loera
Sound Designer: Yvonne Anguiano
Wig/Make-up Designer: Liane Hunkeler
Stage Manager: Dora Trenbeath
Assistant Director: Michael Jase Skarbovig
Technical Director: David Salmo
Master Carpenter: Lucas Shyrock
Sound Tech: Colin Ronsenette


Photo: Eric Woolsey Studios


-- Richard T. Green

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