“The hunt is on.” This is the tagline for Intiman Theater Festival’s 2015 lineup, whose productions address the violent chase and metaphorical witch-hunts that ensue when something seems off, abnormal or a threat to society. Intiman has revved off their summer program with Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending” and the well-received world premiere of “John Baxter is a Switch Hitter” by Ana Brown and Andrew Russell, both of which suture the themes of exclusion, identity and the exquisite pain of being a social outcast.
Intiman’s final anchor production comes to us in the form of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play “The Children’s Hour.” Historically quickly written off as a “melodrama” by critics and audiences alike, the show has nevertheless been greatly successful over the years and enjoys a steady station in many undergraduate Theatre 101 courses (my own included, although I admit I didn’t recognize the show until I was sitting through the second act). The themes of accusation, manipulation, lies and homophobia run rampant through “The Children’s Hour.” The storyline follows two boarding school co-founders, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, who suddenly find themselves wrongly accused of carrying on a lesbian relationship by a vaguely sociopathic student and her wealthy grandmother.
The director of Intiman’s production, Seattle theatre maven Sheila Daniels, thought it time for an update and set the show in 1980s Seattle. However, there are few inherent markers of time or place written into the script, and the “1980s Seattle” backdrop seemed largely conceptual. The updated decade would have been completely indiscernible without the program notes and the cut of Karen’s fiancé’s pant leg, and “Seattle”—or any locale, for that matter—is never mentioned. The destruction wreaked by the manipulative student, Mary Tilford, and the resulting devastation of Karen and Martha’s lives is easy to imagine in 1930s America, where the accusation of homosexuality was, indeed, life-threatening. However, the modernization almost shatters the authenticity of Hellman’s script, creating a divide between the events of the play and the reality of how it would they would unfold in the ’80s. The effect, unfortunately, is that all the characters are either extraordinarily socially conservative or overdramatic and unstable, and the label of “melodrama” emerges once again.
Melodramatics aside, “The Children’s Hour” is a formidable and emotionally exhausting production, enhanced by the intensity of the Intiman cast. The hysterics, confusion and malevolence in Jasmine Jean Sim’s portrayal of Mary was fabulously unsettling. However, the drama of the script did tend to get the better of Sim’s skills at times, leading to moments that unintentionally broke the theatrical illusion through her overacting. As antithesis, Meme Garcia took the character of Rosalie (Mary’s completely unwilling partner-in-crime) and infused herself into it, letting her humor, bravado and terror shine through the character in a more naturalistic manner that Sim was able to produce.
The naturalism of Garcia’s Rosalie was only topped by Tiffany Yvonne Cox’s rendering of Karen Wright, whose sunniness and love shone from the stage in Act I, only to be gradually replaced by a solemnity and complete disconnection throughout the production. Taking on the cadences and line delivery of a spoken word poet, Cox spun the Depression-era script into a heart-wrenching and urgent performance. This feat was attempted but not quite embodied by Hannah Mootz, playing the co-leading lady Martha Dobie. However, Mootz was able to single-handedly transform the last act from Hellman’s scripted melodrama into an all-too-real onslaught of emotional confessions, bringing a double-edged sword of victimization and longing onto the Intiman stage.
The overall rising talent packed into the production is remarkable; emerging Seattle actors, many of them current students or recent grads at Cornish, make up the cast of the fabulously naive and energetic boarding school girls. Special shout-outs are essential for the psychologically unsettling set-change music and fabulous sound design by Matt Starritt, and the subtle but equally unnerving lighting design of Robert J. Aguilar.
It is tempting, when staging a classic and canonized show such as “The Children’s Hour” to sink into exaggerated line delivery and the all too common trope of the sudden-stop-and-thousand-yard-offstage-stare. Intiman’s production achieved incredible moments of emotion and raw urgency, but from a modern theater-goer’s perspective, it would benefit immensely from less stereotypically “theatrical” staging and acting. If the Intiman production team is seeking an update, why not infuse Hellman’s play with more active and contemporary naturalistic staging? Why not play “The Children’s Hour” with a shot of subtlety, rather than succumbing to the Serious Theatre expectations of ongoing shouting and a constant state of fight-or-flight? Are not some of the most profoundly sad and excruciating scenes of theatre and film executed through quiet, intense, understated acting? Does not pained restraint speak as loudly as no holds barred expressive outpouring? Or, when faced with a situation like this—unspeakably unfair, completely unexpected, and utterly life-ruining—do we, as people, automatically run to the edge of our communication, yelling into the void so that perhaps our suddenly soiled life can be understood?
“The Children’s Hour” is at Cornish Playhouse through September 27. You can buy tickets for Intiman’s production of this classic show at their website. If you’re looking for something a little different, check out their upcoming production of “Bootycandy,” a hilarious satirical collage of what it means to grow up black and gay, at Alhadeff Studio in Cornish Playhouse from September 16 to October 3.