In a time when same-sex marriage is legal in much of the country, it might be hard to imagine a period when the mere mention of the subject on a theatrical stage was illegal.
That didn’t stop playwright Lillian Hellman from penning her gossip-fueled tale of lesbian love that was the 1934 play, “The Children’s Hour.”
Eighty years after the story of two college friends who open a private school for girls in New England captured the attention (and the ire) of America, the production is being presented by Buffalo Public Theatre under the direction of Loraine O’Donnell.
Karen Wright (Jenn Stafford) and Martha Dobie (Andrea Natale Profeta) have saved and sacrificed to follow their dreams and open a boarding school for girls. Martha’s overbearing aunt, Miss Lily Mortar (Tammy Hayes McGovern), a former stage actress of some acclaim, at least in her own mind, has joined them to teach elocution.
It is Aunt Lily who shows us the first of what promises to be a flood of turmoil, as her ragged demeanor with the girls and her unjustified sense of grandeur prove too much for Karen, who pressures Martha to send auntie packing.
But the true conflict will bear out at the hand (and imagination) of Mary Tilford, played with a convincing air of wickedness by the talented Arin Dandes. Mary is, quite simply, a bad seed.
After her latest transgression leads to a stiff punishment, Mary hatches a plan to run away and return to her wealthy grandmother, Amelia Tilford, played by Pamela Rose Mangus, a veteran of the Buffalo stage. Mangus does an admirable job capturing the haughty airs of the wealthy Mrs. Tilford, while showing the naiveté needed to believe the unbelievable.
But Mary knows she will be sent back in short order, and face an even harsher punishment, unless she takes drastic measures. And so it is that she comes to tell a wild tale of her teacher’s lesbian tryst. There’s just one problem: it may not be true. But following the play’s central theme exploring the crushing impact that gossip can have, neither Mary, nor Mrs. Tilford get bogged down in those details. Instead, her web of deceit spirals out of control, all to the benefit of the audience, who get to enjoy some of Buffalo’s finest stage performers bring this sordid tale to life.
The show belongs to Stafford, who commands the stage as Karen. As the life Karen has so carefully crafted begins to unravel, Stafford projects a feeling of anguish that is so raw, it is easy to forget she is acting. In a theater so intimate that one could reach out and touch the actors, Stafford is mesmerizing as she takes control of the stage and draws the audience deeper into the darkness.
Profeta captures Martha at her best when sparring with her aunt, delivering the painful barbs of family discord with pinpoint accuracy. But the conflict isn’t limited to the familial kind. Karen is engaged to Dr. Joe Cardin (played by Bobby Cooke), but there is an uneasy divide as Martha wonders aloud whether Karen’s pending nuptials will mean the end of the school.
The actors wrap all of this drama up wonderfully in a chaotic package of jealousy, ignorance and gossip that builds to a shockingly unexpected climax.
Rounded out with a supporting cast of actresses, led by the promising young talent of Jamie Nablo as Rosalie Wells, the student unlucky enough to land in the cross hairs of Mary Tilford, “The Children’s Hour” proves to be just as relevant today as it was eight decades ago.
What: “The Children’s Hour”
Who: Buffalo Public Theatre
Where: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park
When: Through Nov. 9
Info: 853-1334, www.newphoenixtheatre.org