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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘The Children’s Hour’ is the event to watch this weekend

Published: November 22, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

Amid anticipated debuts of the musical “Cabaret” and performances by Adagio, Hillel Theater Group’s production of “The Children’s Hour” stunned audiences through its dramatic performances, disturbing themes of manipulation, and exquisitely talented cast. Delving into the psychologically disturbed mind of a young girl who incites claims of homosexuality to destroy the lives of those around her, the play, directed by Allison Thvedt ’15, enraptured the attention of the audience.

Originally written in the 1930s by Lillian Hellman, the play explores the social stigmatization of homosexuality in a manner astonishing for the time period. As ipods blared the song “Paper Planes” and the simple set filled with schoolgirls chatting during their sewing lessons, it was impossible to decipher the time period of the play. Yet, this technicality was truly the only noticeable flaw of the production, as brilliant performances by a cast heavily laden with debuting freshmen seized the stage.

Standout performer Allison Kaminsky ’17, a first-year from Los Angeles, delivered a convincing and haunting portrayal of the manipulative Mary Tilford, a pre-teen girl who psychologically torments her peers, teachers and relatives. It is revealed that Mary’s father committed suicide, suggesting a troubled childhood that gave rise to her manipulative behaviors. Feigning a heart attack to escape class, Mary’s propensity to lie and suddenly switch from a state of pure rage to smiles is haunting to say the least.

Bronte Velez ’16, who convincingly plays the role of Karen White, headmistress of the boarding school, appears a concerned mentor figure who glimpses into Mary’s true character and makes the grave mistake of confronting the young girl’s propensity for lying. Having co-founded the boarding school with Martha Dobie, expertly played by Grace Fosler ’14, White is engaged to be married to Joseph Cardin, played by Justy Kosek ’14. However, Martha’s jealous antics and emotional outbreaks hint at a potential homosexual relationship lingering between her and Karen, one which Mary discovers and utilizes for her own selfish exploits.

Depicting fragile family relationships wrought with tension, Dobie is accused of being “unnatural” in a emotionally charged argument with her aunt, a middle aged woman burdened with a strong sense of pride who is easily deceived by the young Mary. The simple set, bare except for a desk and a sofa, only seemed to thrust the emotional performances of the actresses into the spotlight. Without the presence of intricate props or luxurious costumes to awe audiences, the play astonished viewers solely on the basis of its chilling performances.

In startling moments during the play, the audience is given glimpses into the abusive mind of Mary as she violently throws objects in rage, lies blatantly to school officials and her own grandmother and physically slaps a stunned friend across the face. When one of Mary’s friends attempts to stand up to her, Mary unexpectedly lashes out, shoving one of the girls to the floor, slapping another across the check, and yanking on her hair without mercy. The victims break down in tears, unable to process the violent behavior of Mary, relinquishing to her desires.

As Mary becomes progressively more psychotic, switching from loving granddaughter to abusive friend, she utters a lie with fatal consequences. Running away from the boarding school, she twists a web of lies to manipulate her grandmother, instigating Karen and Martha as lesbian lovers. Witnessing her grand mother becoming more and more disturbed, Mary leans across and whispers a terrifying secret in her ear, which although is not heard by the audience, but can clearly be deciphered. Pretending to be frightened by audible noises heard in Karen’s bedroom when Martha visits during the evening hours, Mary spins a story of a lesbian love affair to avoid returning to the boarding school.

Noting the time period of the 1930s, allegations of homosexuality are met with grave concern by the grandmother, who immediately seeks action, resulting in parents pulling all their children from the boarding school. Leading ultimately to the dramatic suicide of Martha, Mary’s manipulative lies are only brought to light after the utter destruction of the innocent lives of those around her.

As the first debut of director Allison Thvedt, “The Children’s Hour” draws audiences into a chilling tale of the psychologically disturbed young girl who utterly lacks empathy for those around her. Kaminsky expertly plays the role, switching effortlessly between moments of sheer rage, to sweet, loving facades. The emotional torment of characters such as Martha and Karen are captured through the stunning performances of Velez and Fosler.