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Review: Tampa Rep's 'The Children's Hour' remains a timely drama

In The Children’s Hour, Mary Tilford (Olivia Sargent, 15, left) accuses girls school founder Martha Dobie (Katie Castonguay) of a lesbian relationship, beginning a public scandal. Both give strong perfor-mances that help Tampa Repertory’s production deliver when it counts.
In The Children’s Hour, Mary Tilford (Olivia Sargent, 15, left) accuses girls school founder Martha Dobie (Katie Castonguay) of a lesbian relationship, beginning a public scandal. Both give strong perfor-mances that help Tampa Repertory’s production deliver when it counts.
Published Sep. 28, 2015

TAMPA — The Children's Hour, Lillian Hellman's groundbreaking play about a rumored lesbian relationship, debuted on Broadway in 1934. It returned in 1952, and the playwright was brought before Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.

Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss starred in a 2011 run in London. Now Tampa Repertory Theatre has opened its fifth season, one dubbed American Visions, with The Children's Hour. The choice coincides nicely with Tampa Rep's residence in Tampa Preparatory School, where the theater will perform two of its four productions this season (the other two are at the University of South Florida).

Students from Tampa Prep and Corbett Preparatory School make up part of the cast, but the business in the opening scene alone, with school girls fidgeting and whispering and studying and pretending to study in realistic teenage time, makes clear that this will not resemble most high school productions.

The play's very setting — a girls school founded by two women — is both innocuous and controversial. People question their independence and close friendship.

One of the women, Karen, is to be married, a development that has always altered friendships and causes some tension. The real conflict germinates over an accusation lodged by one of the students that Karen and fellow founder Martha are lovers.

Rumors quickly take on the aura of fact. What might have resolved as a school matter becomes a public scandal that threatens every relationship. One of the central questions in the text, and any performance, is this: Can an adolescent girl hold a roomful of adults at a standoff?

The accuser, Mary Tilford, is coercive and vulnerable, manipulative and cunning, enigmatic and strong-willed. Olivia Sargent, 15, the home-schooled daughter of director Emilia Sargent, more than carries this adult-sized load.

As Mary, Olivia knows where she is supposed to be and when and why. Her face is a blank canvas, and no expression comes to it except her character's reaction to what is going on around her.

Equally critical is the chemistry between Karen (Emily Belvo) and Martha (Katie Castonguay). Both hold up well, but Castonguay's performance is especially mesmerizing. As Dr. Joseph Cardin, Karen's calm and somewhat Milquetoast fiance (and Mary's cousin), Derrick Phillips ventures dangerously close to a languid passivity. As his role becomes more significant, however, the motivation behind that appearance becomes clearer and less puzzling.

Other characters contribute as solidly, including Donna DeLonay as Mary's doting grandmother and Lynne Locher as an aging Gloria Swanson-vintage sponge.

Costumes by Connie LaMarca-Frankel underscore the prevailing uniformity of the times, from boarding school students to the long skirts on teachers and shoes left over from the 19th century.

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Sacrilegious as it feels to say this, the text contains a couple significant passages that are a little hard to swallow. Unlike The Crucible, which builds a climate of accusation layer by layer, the central charges in The Children's Hour come to a head very quickly, kind of unbelievably so. Elements of the conclusion, which I won't spoil, also depart noticeably from how people behave.

However, those plot devices serve a narrative that delves deeply, and with a subtlety that is still all too rare, into human psychology. The play and production deliver where it counts, and are thus have created a worthy start to Tampa Repertory's season.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.