by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
In a joint effort, Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (ABET) and Jacksonville University opened Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour on October 28. This classic will be on stage at 716 Ocean Blvd in Atlantic Beach until November 12. Call 249-7177 or visit their website at www.abettheatre.com for reservations.
In 1933 when Hellman’s play debuted, it was so controversial that some cities banned production and the Pulitzer Prize Committee refused to even accept it as a contender for its annual award.
The story takes place in a small New England private school for girls set in the 1950s in ABET’s version. Mary (Jessie Loomis), an emotionally disturbed fourteen-year-old, is unhappy with the school and its two schoolmistresses, Karen (Amanda Morales) and Martha (Ashley Jones), and alleges that they are in “an unnatural relationship.” Although the word “lesbians” is never used, this was quite a scandalous charge in 1933 and even in the 1950s.
When Mary relates her unfounded accusations to her grandmother Amelia Tilford (Gretta Russe), she in turn quickly spreads incriminating rumors throughout the small town. The result is that the parents of the schoolchildren withdraw them, and Karen and Martha are forced to close the school. Legal action against Amelia is unsuccessful. Karen is engaged to the local doctor Joseph Cardin (Nick Boucher), who urges the two women to move away and join him in a distant town. However, the two women, demoralized by their experiences and feelings, are unable to agree to his proposal, and the play ends with a tragic death.
The story is especially relevant today, for with mass media we spread the word on many supposed misdeeds, real or concocted, with lightning speed. The play also points out to modern audiences that bullying among schoolchildren is nothing new. Mary uses physical and psychological pressures to get what she wants from other students. When she threatens to turn in fellow student Rosalie (Brittani Wyskocil), for stealing a bracelet, Mary is able to persuade her to say she saw the two women kissing and embracing.
Director Deborah Jordan’s cast is a mix of Jacksonville University and local community actors. Theresa Buchanan is Lily, the flamboyant part-time teacher of voice and elocution at the school, and Martha’s meddlesome aunt. Catherine Courtney, with her lovely British accent, is Agatha, the grandmother‘s maid.
Three of the students represent local schools. Carmel Burbridge (Catherine) attends St. Paul’s Catholic School; Jessie Thompson (Lois) is a theatre major at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts; Katherine Patterson (Helen) is a student at Mandarin Middle School. Rounding out the cast are JU students Elaine Tyson (Evelyn), Brandon Hormann (a grocery boy & also Assistant Stage manager) and Shadae Myers (Peggy, and also ABET’s stage manager).
JU freshman Jessie Loomis is superb as Mary, and due to excellent acting, you may find her portrayal of this malicious fourteen-year-old disturbing. Her previous experience was in Bangkok, Thailand, where she was an international student. You will be seeing more of this talented actress in the future.
Amanda Morales is excellent as the victimized Karen. This represents a break-out role for her; since moving to Jacksonville less than a year ago, she has had small roles in Player’s Dividing the Estate and Tommy. Look for her in another major role in ABET’s 39 Steps, opening in December.
Ashley Jones as Martha appeared in her first show at ABET, but it won’t be her last on local stages as she is a freshman at Jacksonville University and is majoring in theatre. She and Ms. Morales both gave sensitive and moving performances.
This was Nick Boucher’s first major role in community theatre, but we have enjoyed his talents in a number of roles at Jacksonville University where he is a junior. He too will be one of the major players in the four person cast of 39 Steps, which is being directed by JU graduate Erik DeCicco.
The set by Jen Fortune portrayed two living rooms. The first, with somewhat austere furnishings, belonged to the school, and was quickly changed into a more elaborate space for Amelia Tilford by the efficient stage crew.
Costume Design by Margaret Hennessey included schoolgirl uniforms with white blouses and pleated plaid skirts, a filmy flowered dress for Lily, and trim skirts and cardigans for Karen and Martha.
The Children’s Hour is a retro play; about the past but still relevant. Plays like this and To Kill A Mockingbird, Our Town, and Inherit The Wind, just to name a few, allow us to not only be entertained but to experience a slice of history long past but brought back to life again by living actors, and that’s something films cannot do. Professor Deborah Jordan has a keen sense of the importance of history as she has shown in the many classics that she has directed both in community theatre and at Jacksonville University. Don’t miss this classic.
THE CHILDREN'S HOUR
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM