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The mouths of babes

Mad Horse’s chilling season opener
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  October 16, 2008

DIFFICULT TIMES: Written in the depths of
the Depression.

The terrorism of emotional manipulation and smear campaigns is certainly alive and well anywhere that somebody wants a certain kind of power. Lillian Hellman’s 1934 The Children’s Hour, directed by Christine Louise Marshall to open the season for Mad Horse, renders those evils particularly disturbing and intimate by setting them in the hands of a child.

Young, competent, and energetic, Karen (Elizabeth Chambers) and Martha (Shannon Campbell) run a boarding school for girls. The two friends have a warm and respectful rapport with all of their young wards but one: The wily Mary Tilford (Hannah Daly), granddaughter of the wealthy and influential Mrs. Amelia Tilford (Susan Reilly), is a real bad apple, and Karen and Martha have noticed that some of the other girls are now starting to show signs of spoilage, too. And when Mary makes unfounded accusations about the nature of Karen and Martha’s relationship, everything turns irrevocably to rot.

As these two schoolteachers, idealistic but feisty and sarcastic (particularly when it comes to Martha’s intolerable Aunt Lily, a former actress and a hoot in the hands of Maureen Butler), Chambers and Campbell bring a believable depth and comfort to the women’s friendship and working relationship. There is only one tension between the friends (and Campbell does a subtle job manifesting it, Chambers a sympathetic job in acknowledging it): Karen has a beau whom she plans to marry — Joe, a young physician (Burke Brimmer) — but Martha lives only for her friend and her work, and fears what changes the marriage might bring.

As for the students, they represent a change of pace for Mad Horse — indeed, for professional area theater in general — by using a fine corps of actors under the age of 18: The pre-teen girls of Karen and Martha’s school are portrayed by a strong cast of locals, including Serena Adlerstein, Nora Daly, Clancy Connelly, Mikhaila Fogel, Emma Dadmun, Ruth Gray, and Helen Thomphins. Their performances are appealing and distinct in character; they present endearing variations on that particular mélange of affectation, insecurity, and candor that is timelessly common to girls of this age.

And then there’s the uncommon Mary, whose steely self-possession stands in striking contrast to the normal childishness of the other girls. As this proto-Bad Seed, the watchful and understated Daly is diabolically convincing. Her dark-eyed gaze is flat, steady, and chillingly clinical, unclouded by any troublesome empathetic nuances. At one point, an angry Martha asks how Mary knows so much at such a young age, and indeed, Daly’s schoolgirl has an eerily confident and far-reaching intelligence of other people’s psychologies — an acuity that’s particularly scary because it is entirely in the service of her own whims and preservation.

Other people’s reactions to Mary make up some of the most fraught and revealing scenes in the show. As her pearl-draped, jewel-bedecked grandmother, Reilly has a particularly fine scene of wrestling between skeptical indulgence and horrified belief when Mary runs away from school to her and makes her ruinous accusation. She insists on whispering it into her grandma’s ear, and as she does, Reilly has a hard, clenched grip on the girl’s arm, as if wanting at the same time to pull her closer and stop her words.

Mary’s classmates, too, are susceptible to her in spite of themselves. As Peggy and Evelyn (Fogel and Munn) stare at Mary, who’s just gotten in trouble and reacted to it brazenly, they convey their mixture of fascination, fear, indignance, and desire for her approval. And as Rosalie, who has the misfortune to be blackmailed by Mary, Serena Adlerstein makes beautiful work of a child struggling to choose between what’s right and what she thinks is self-preservation.

Naturally, both the children and the adults of this Depression-era play seem discombobulated by a lot less in the way of scandal than we are today. Likewise, occasional slack points in the show seem attributable not to Marshall’s production, but to a script written for an audience with a different era’s capacity for shock. But no less horrific is the play’s horror: A human power defined not by what it can lift up, as Karen and Martha hope to, but by what it can belittle, outsmart, and bring down.

The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman | Directed by Christine Louise Marshall | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company | at the Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company | through October 26 | at Maine State Ballet in Falmouth | November 6-16 | 207.730.2389

Megan Grumbling can be reached at

  Topics: Theater , Susan Reilly , Shannon Campbell , Christine Louise Marshall ,  More more >
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