Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Children's Hour
Ross Valley Players
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's review of The Dining Room

Heather Davis and Tamar Cohn
Photo by Gregg Le Blanc | CumulusLight Photography
Lillian Hellman's career as an American playwright was launched in 1934 by the big splash of her first play, The Children's Hour, which ran for almost 700 performances and generated controversy and debate, owing to its then-shocking subject matter. It was revived in 1952 during McCarthyism, as was Arthur Miller's The Crucible, to make artistic protest against the "witch hunt" of the hearings and resulting blacklisting. Given this context, it's a significant entry in American theatre history, but its contemporary place is far less sure, due to dated dialogue and an unredeemed perspective on sexuality mired in its original era. Ross Valley Players mounts an uneven production that sometimes engages but fails to elevate the dated material.

Karen (Laura Peterson) and Martha (Joanna Cretella) are two educators who have managed to set up an elite girls' boarding school in an old farm they bought somewhere in the East Coast diaspora of New York. Only two years in, the school is already thriving and starting to pay for itself, apparently having established a good reputation for both scholarship and proper breeding of young girls in upper class circles. They can now afford to "pay off" and dispatch Mrs. Mortar (Rachel Kayhan), Martha's aunt, who has been teaching but is a less capable teacher and questionable role model. Martha wonders if Karen will also leave when she marries local doctor Joseph Cardin (Elliott Hanson), even though she assures Martha she has no intention of leaving the school.

Additionally, one of their young charges is becoming more and more of an issue—Mary Tilford (Heather Davis) complains of mistreatment, feigns illness, and challenges rules, openly arguing with her teachers and refusing to cooperate. While the adults strategize how to deal with her rebellion, Mary is bullying other girls, threatening them with blackmail if they disobey her commands. Her wealthy grandmother, Amelia Tilford (Tamar Cohn), will no doubt rescue her from her miserable school life, she tells them. Mary's nighttime escape to her grandmother's mansion and her manufactured reasons for wanting to leave school ignite the firestorm of lies and innuendo that lay waste to Karen and Martha's reputations.

While the themes of bullying and rumor-mongering are topical, they're eclipsed in the play by Hellman's final act, where other issues arise and suffer from a 1930s perspective. The dialogue also deepens into melodrama, veering into the maudlin. Ultimately, to say that the play delivers an important message for today's audience belies its ignorant roots.

Fortunately, the two principals in RVP's production are excellent actresses who exercise considerable talent in mitigating the melodrama. Understated and believable, Peterson and Cretella do their best to deliver real people dealing with horrible circumstances. Unfortunately, even they are unable to alter the third act. The cast of young girls rotates in performances. The night I saw the show, Davis played Mary, and Alexandra Fry was the hapless Rosalie snared in Mary's trap. Both fine young actresses, they comported themselves well on stage.

Scenic design by Tom O'Brien engineers a clever switch from the schoolhouse to Mrs. Tilford's manor, and garnered some applause for the effect. Costumes by Michael Berg suit the decade, but seem too somber and ordinary for Mrs. Tilford and even Mrs. Mortar. Ella Cooley's sound design archly plants us in the 1930s. Neiry Rojo's direction figures some awkward stagings and dubious character choices, and sadly fails to offset the histrionics of act three; in her defense, that might not be possible.

See the show for history's sake, or to support young performers.

The Children's Hour, through February 11, 2018, at Ross Valley Players, The Barn Theater at Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Tickets $12.00-$27.00 can be purchased online at or by phone at 415-456-9555.