The Children’s Hour

“Children’s Hour” Still Powerful at NTAC

By Tom Titus

Lillian Hellman’s first successful play – written in 1934 – was “The Children’s Hour,” which knocked Broadway back on its heels and ran for over two years. Eighty years later, it’s still a powerful piece of theater when cast with superior talent as it is at the Newport Theater Arts Center.

This current revival is replete with standout performances, especially those of the two schoolteachers falsely accused of being lesbian lovers. But playgoers will leave the theater talking about a petite, 12-year-old actress who turns in a brilliant performance as their accuser .

That would be Emma Bradley, about whom more certainly will be heard in the future. Her captivating performance as Mary Tilford, a little girl you love to hate, borders on brilliance, both in its power and its nuance, under the meticulous direction of Kevin Slay. It’s about time someone revived “The Bad Seed” to showcase this young lady’s talents.

As the teachers whose lives are ruined by this hateful little brat, Amanda Zarr and Rachel Lockhart are a standout pair whose interpretive powers are put to the test in two demanding assignments. Zarr portrays Karen Wright, who’s engaged to the town doctor (Christopher Geer) and finds both her personal and professional worlds shattered by her accuser’s lies.

Lockhart is equally strong as Martha Dobie, who suffers even deeper damage to her psyche, a plot element that doesn’t surface until nearly the end of the play. Together, they convey agonizing heartache, perhaps a bit melodramatic for today’s audiences, but the time portrayed is 1934, the year “Children’s Hour” was written.

Veteran local actress Teri Ciranna, long absent from the NTAC stage, returns with a flourish as Martha’s overly dramatic aunt Lily, an actress who’s constantly “on stage,” even when assisting young girls in a play rehearsal. Given her profession, as well as the time period, her performance is definitely on target.

As the grandmother of Bradley’s character, a dowager who wields a powerful influence over the school, Judy Jones is a bit hesitant in her performance, but generally quite effective. Geer’s young doctor exhibits considerable stage power as he endeavors to ferret out the truth and save his relationship with Zarr’s character.

Another student caught in Mary’s web is Rosalie (Kelsey Arnold), who unwillingly aids in the teachers’ destruction. Arnold successfully projects her fear of the smaller Bradley in an emotionally demanding segment.

Director Slay has created a chilling atmosphere, reinforced by his ensemble players cast as fellow students. They include Mia El-Bayar, Hanna Jarvis, Kaylin Omo, Diana Tran and Savannah Young. Naomi Murden scores quite well as the no-nonsense maid to Jones’ character, while David Soukenik is fine in a one-shot appearance as a grocery boy.

Andrew Otero’s dual setting fills the bill nicely, reflecting the penury of the Depression-era period. Costumes, by Claudia Berglund and Mary DePaoli, are impressive as well.

Melodramatic? Overlong? Guilty on both counts, but quite acceptable when one considers that eight decades have passed since “The Children’s Hour” was written. It’s a peek into theatrical history written large at the Newport Theater Arts Center, where it will play through Feb. 23. Reservations are taken at (949) 631-0288.

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