Considered shocking at the time, Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play “The Children’s Hour” was banned in Boston, Chicago and London at least through 1950.
Times have changed since the play about a rumored lesbian relationship between the headmistresses of a New England girls school debuted on Broadway, but the power of rumors and lies to do damage is still potent today.
“We’re concentrating less on the subject matter and more on the characters’ actions and how the lies and rumors affect them,” said Mark McCarver, who is directing the play for the Port City Playhouse in Alexandria.
The two-act production, with a cast of 16 actors, runs from Friday through Sept. 28.
Hellman’s first major play — she also wrote “The Little Foxes” — kicks off Port City Playhouse’s 36th season.
This year the company is focusing on four American playwrights, each with their own take on American culture, society and history.
In the early 1930s, Hellman divorced her husband and had a 30-year affair with mystery writer and Maryland native Dashiell Hammett.
Hammett is believed to have given her the idea for “The Children’s Hour,” which is based on a real case about a girls’ school in 1809 Edinburgh, Scotland.
In Hellman’s play, a teenage student claims that the two headmistresses of her private school in New England are having a relationship.
“She doesn’t want to go back to school, and she’s been coddled by her grandmother, and so she does what it takes to get out,” said McCarver about the character of 13-year-old Mary Tilford, played by Katelyn Wattendorf, a rising junior at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria.
The two headmistresses are Martha Dobie (Chelsey Megli) and Karen Wright (Michelle McBeth), who is engaged to local doctor Joe Cardin. Friends since college, the two women started the school and are working hard to keep it growing during the Depression.
In the first act, Martha and her aunt Lily Mortar, a teacher at the school, have an argument over how Lily thinks Martha seems to become irritable and jealous when Joe is around visiting Karen.
The argument is overheard by two students, who relate the conversation to classmate Mary, who wants to leave the school because she’s not getting the same attention there that she did from her grandmother, Amelia Tilford (played by Carole Steele).
When the grandmother tells Mary she has to stay, Mary replies by telling her an embellished version of the story she heard from the two classmates.
“Mary is incredibly intelligent but that [intelligence] is very limited,” McCarver said. “She only sees the immediate consequences.”
The story worked, because the grandmother does indeed pull Mary out of school, but that triggers a parent-fueled exodus of other students that results in the school being forced to close with dire consequences for Karen, Martha and Joe.
“When Hellman talked about the play, she considered the material not as important as the lie that was told,” said McCarver, who devised scenes for the student actors “to bolster the effects of rumors and childish behavior.”
Two years after it debuted on Broadway, “The Children’s Hour” was adapted into a film directed by William Wyler and renamed “These Three.”
The film had much of the same dialogue but the story was turned into a romantic triangle with the doctor rumored to be involved with both headmistresses.
In 1961, the movie was remade and titled “The Children’s Hour,” with Wyler again as director. This time the script stayed true to the play, with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as the headmistresses and James Garner as the doctor.
McCarver said he saw the play in college but has not seen the movie, preferring to interpret the play his own way.
“The child had horrible intentions, but I don’t think any one person is at fault,” he said. “There are other characters, and their actions [also] still have consequences.”