Whispered annihilation

When Lillian Hellman sat down to write her first play 65 years ago, she surely had no idea that her virgin effort would land her squarely in the bright, hot spotlight.

But The Children’s Hour is as bitingly fresh today as it was in 1934.

Hellman’s dramas are legendary for stripping away the various disguises evil is wont to don; her first play embodies the unbelievable truth that a single lie (devised, in this case, by a malicious child) can destroy lives, leaving emotional and physical roadkill in its wake. This compelling period piece employs a stark, pragmatic angle in presenting how society writhes to avoid the stigma of homosexuality — real or imagined. And, as loaded as the subject remains today, it was considerably more so in the 1930s.

Local contemporary-theater troupe Consider the Following rehearsed its version of The Children’s Hour in a dilapidated warehouse in the River District. This reporter dropped in on them recently as young cast members sauntered into the cold building at twilight, accompanied by a few adults and a shaggy black dog. Laughing like schoolgirls on their way to recess, the actresses’ lighthearted banter belied the fact that they were assembled to play out an extremely potent drama.

Upon entering the rehearsal space, however, their mood abruptly sobered.

Wendy Fletcher, the play’s 24-year-old director, gathered the cast into an intimate circle for warm-up exercises, which included stretching and a round of nursery-school tongue-twisters.

“I like breathing new life into a classic,” says Fletcher. “And I think the actors are really enjoying finding their characters and exploring what is motivating them to do all these intense things. However, I don’t think Asheville audiences will be offended by the subject matter, because they possess a theatrical maturity [when it comes to things] that might not fly in other places.”

The pace of the script — based on a true story that took place in Scotland — is rapid, presented with no verbal frills or diversions. Scene one opens in a private Massachusetts girls’ school run by college friends Karen Wright (Stephanie Hickling) and Martha Dobie (Andrea Freeman), who have struggled long and hard to establish their institution. Mary Tilford (Jamie Jambon), the manipulative school bully, is caught in a lie and punished by Wright in front of her classmates.

Mary quickly metes out a retaliatory punishment — unleashing an avalanche of destruction.

The vengeful student seeks out her socially prominent grandmother, Amelia Tilford (the school’s benefactress), and repeats to her a startling conversation some of her school friends overheard while lurking behind a classroom door: During this charged meeting, Martha’s meddling aunt, Mrs. Mortar, had accused her niece of being overly fond of her fellow teacher. In particular, Mary seizes on Mortar’s comment, “It’s unnatural, just as unnatural as it can be.”

Taken out of context and viciously embellished by Mary, who falsely hints at improprieties by the two teachers, the incident is hastily repeated by Mrs. Tilford to parents — who rush to remove their children from the school.

Tainted by the growing paranoia, the drama snowballs until every life touched by Mary’s act crashes like a house of cards under a hot breath. The teachers sue for libel, but lose because Martha’s aunt refuses to testify. The school is closed and its two founders are reduced to social lepers — afraid even to walk down the sidewalk in their own neighborhood. Building, as it does, to a chilling crescendo, the play’s denouement leaves no doubt as to the poisonous reach of Mary’s lie.

“My challenge is to give Mary some balance,” says Jambon between takes. “I don’t want her seen as being pure evil.” Dressed in a parochial-school uniform and braids, the young actress gives no visual hints of her extensive theatrical experience. She’s been performing in community theater since she was 11; now, at the tender age of 18, Jambon is striving to portray Mary as more than just a one-dimensional psychopath.

Contemporary audiences may have to stretch a bit to fully appreciate the extent of the play’s scandal. “The word ‘lesbian’ didn’t even exist then,” Freeman (Martha) divulges. “They were just labeled ‘sick women.’ … In the ’30s, there were no lifestyle alternatives available.”

Week four finds most of the cast “off-book” (theater-speak for having memorized their lines), assistant director and producer Sheldon Lawrence notes proudly. But, then, he had his pick of Asheville’s creme de la creme when selecting the leads. In fact, 35 skilled actors vied for the juicy roles.

“This is the most we’ve had turn out for an audition,” reveals Lawrence.

In retrospect, the producer admits that the keen interest was perhaps inevitable: “This play has not been done in this area for 12 years, and for women who are into theater, almost all of them would want to be in it. … There are five really good women’s parts in this play. The 18 girls who auditioned were mostly interested in playing Mary, but indicated that they’d be willing to play another part.”

A conscientious leader, Lawrence headed off possible objections about the play’s theme: “I put a disclaimer in the audition flier alerting parents that, although it is a play with children in it, it is not a children’s show,” he explains. “I hate for a kid to get really excited about auditioning and then the parents find out what it’s about and say ‘I’m not going to let my daughter be in that.’ I haven’t had a single complaint from any of the parents.”

Lawrence then passed the torch of diligence to director Fletcher, who promptly ran with it: “We’re definitely grappling with some big issues. One of the first things I did as the director was to have discussions with cast to make sure they understood their lines and what was going on, especially with the young girls.”

Stephanie Hickling, a striking new face on the local scene, adds a dynamic element to the ensemble in the coveted role of Karen Wright. The only African-American in the cast, Hickling observes, “The part itself is not difficult, but we have the lesbian thing superimposed over the interracial thing. I think it’s very cool that we added that. And, even though we are not addressing the racial issue, it’s definitely going to be noticed.”

Clearly, Lawrence thrives on producing substantial theater. “We want our plays to make you think — whatever way the play goes about doing that,” he offers, when asked about the company’s name. Founded in the winter of 1998 with business partner Lynnora Bierce-Wilson, CTF has produced other significant works, including Lillian (a one-woman show about Hellman), The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Kingfish (featuring local actor and Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet David Hopes) and Light Up the Sky.

“I’ve been wanting to do [The Children’s Hour] for about four years. I think it’s incredibly powerful theater,” the producer reflects.

Despite the harsh fluorescent lights and the intermittent clash of barking dogs echoing throughout the building, the players deliver riveting drama on this late-winter evening. Even in rehearsal mode, the classic work ignites the mundane surroundings, offering up the ghost of Hellman’s frequently quoted remark, “Cynicism is an unpleasant way of telling the truth.”

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