Rumor has the stage


Wright State University Theatre presents ‘The Children’s Hour’

By Tim Smith

Photo: (l-r) Megan Valle (Mrs. Amelia Tilford), Zac Pruett (Dr. Joeseph Cardin), Katie Post, and Haley Knuth

Did you hear the rumor? One of your co-workers is having an affair with a married man. How about the one where your boss embezzled money from the retirement fund? Or that your neighbor is part of a secret organization plotting to overthrow the government? None of them are true, but someone told someone else who then told another person, and it got around.

The effects of gossip and unfounded allegations are the backbone of the Wright State University Theatre production of “The Children’s Hour,” by Lillian Hellman. It is a drama set in an all-girls boarding school run by two women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. An angry student with a definite nasty streak, Mary Tilford, runs away from the school after being punished. To avoid being sent back, she tells her grandmother that the two headmistresses are having a lesbian affair. The accusation at this time in history dismantles the women’s careers and lives. When the dust finally begins to settle, we are left with some emotionally scarred victims trying to put the pieces back together.

The play was first staged on Broadway in 1934, but was based on an incident that occurred in Scotland in 1809. Two years later it was turned into a movie by director William Wyler, called “These Three.” Due to the censorship constraints imposed on Hollywood at the time, the lesbian aspect had to be eliminated, and the story became a love triangle between the two headmistresses and a local doctor. In 1961, Wyler did a more faithful remake as “The Children’s Hour,” with Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, and James Garner. In discussing her work, Lillian Hellman confessed that she originally wrote “The Children’s Hour” just to prove she could write a stage play.

Marya Spring Cordes, assistant professor and head of acting at WSU, directs the local incarnation. She notes that, for a variety of reasons, this production has been on the radar for some time.

“‘The Children’s Hour’ has been proposed for all the six years I have been with the department because the story is timeless and the script is so well written,” she says. “It is a piece of modern realism that gets its hold on you and doesn’t let go, as the tale takes you on its journey until the very final haunting moment. We decided to do it this year due to its relevant thematic content.”

Unlike many revivals of classic American stage dramas, no updates were needed to make it more accessible for a contemporary audience.

“As I was exploring it for myself and with the very talented cast of actors, we all discovered that it opens a vein, no matter what age you are and what era in which you were born,” Cordes says. “It is about being human. Whatever perspective you come from, there are generations represented with which to empathize.”

The story is especially relevant today, in light of the change in attitudes regarding same-sex relationships and civil rights. It reminds audiences of the dangers of spreading rumors, and the way such allegations can impact innocent lives. Dysfunctional family values are poked in the eye as relatives of the accused close ranks against them. The never-ending problem of bullying is also represented, when the perpetrator of the lie blackmails a meek, frightened classmate into backing up her false claim.

“It was one of the reasons why this year was the right year, but fascinatingly not the most important concept of our current time that influenced us,” Cordes says. “Watching the culture of tolerance versus intolerance, empathy versus devaluing, and argument versus engagement arise so violently in recent years made us really explore empathy for the opposing side. Actors tend to be open-minded by nature, so empathizing with same-sex relationships tends to come easily. However, to step into a character’s shoes who walks on the other side of the discourse presented an interesting challenge. Our job as actors is to fully empathize with the want or need of a character.”

Hellman’s prose packs an emotional wallop, and the cast delivers the goods, giving the right amount of believability without going over the top. The two female leads, played by Katie Post and Haley Knuth, demonstrate good chemistry and convincingly portray the bonds of close friendship. Zac Pruett, as the Doctor who is engaged to one of them, essays the voice of reason in a chaotic situation. A special nod goes to Dana Bixler as the antagonist, Mary Tilford. She embodies the manipulative, spoiled brat you love to hate. The supporting cast members who portray the other schoolgirls get all the nuances right, from teenage crushes to silly pranks. Also worth noting is Caitlyn Shiner as the self-centered aunt of one of the headmistresses.

The play is mounted professionally, with a sharp eye for detail and mood. The set decoration by David J. Castellano evokes the period, along with the costumes and hairstyles designed by Naomi Reisner. During scene changes, 1930s-era songs provides a nice touch of atmosphere.

Anyone who has ever been the victim of gossip can relate to the story and the central characters. “The Children’s Hour” contains something that will appeal to all generations, though, due to mature content and language, this play is intended for adult audiences. It’s presented in an engrossing production that will hold your interest until the final fade-out.

‘The Children’s Hour’ runs through Feb. 12 at Wright State University’s Creative Arts Center Festival Playhouse, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy. in Fairborn. Show times are Wednesday and Thursday, and Feb. 8 and 9, at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, Feb. 10 and 11, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 11 and 12, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. For more information, please call 937.775.2500 or visit https://Liberal-Arts.Wright.Edu/Theatre-Dance-and-Motion-Pictures/Box-Office. 


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Tim Smith
Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at

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