Theater

Iris Grace and Jan O'Dell in "The Children's Hour": Photo by Ralph Stewart
Mary Tilford (Iris Grace, left) and Amelia Tilford (Jan O'Dell) in "The Children's Hour." Photo by Ralph Stewart

Power behind the lie

By Anna Marie D'Addarie - June 22, 2006

"I swear on the grave of my father," said Mary Tilford. Out of the mouth of this child, pure evil flows and propels "The Children's Hour," making it riveting theatre. The opening night crowd at the Vineyard Playhouse last Friday evening appreciated every minute of the three-act production. The solid performances make the production a must-see. Even for those of us who already know and love this play, this production adds another layer.

You should always arrive early to the theatre to give yourself plenty to time to relax, read the program, and leave the real world behind. This is especially true of "The Children's Hour." The program notes by dramaturg Nicole Galland, who also plays the part of Agatha, lay a good foundation for playwright Lillian Hellman's work. They provide the audience with a deeper understanding of just what drove Ms. Hellman.

Director MJ Bruder Munafo worked her cast well, hitting all the high notes. The well-paced show moves smoothly from exposition to climatic moments. Ms. Munafo brings out the best in her actors.

The play takes place in a girls' boarding school run by two women. The students, however, are run by Mary Tilford, a young girl who elevates extortion to an art form and who knows just what buttons to push. Mary is played is scary perfection by Iris Grace, 13, no stranger to the Vineyard stage.

The two women who run the school are Martha Dobie, played by Molly Purves, and Karen Wright, played by Heather Girardi. Both actors bring an honesty and ease to their characters, and when the script demands a dramatic turn, they are never overwhelmed by it. We are rooting for them and not simply because Mary Tilford lies about them. These actors create characters we care deeply for.

Jan O'Dell plays Mary Tilford's grandmother, Amelia Tilford. She is a strong woman who dotes on her granddaughter. Even so, Mary must tell a huge lie to have her grandmother believe it in order to destroy the school and all the lives attached to it. Ms. O'Dell is strong as the ultimately tragic figure.

Christopher Kahn, known to Island audiences, plays a convincing Dr. Joseph Cardin. The character does his best to stand firm against adversity, but it just isn't enough.

Sheila Stasack as Lily Mortar, the washed-up actor and aunt to Martha Dobie adds just a hint of comic relief as she gestures and sweeps across the stage. In the end Lily proves to be weak and ineffectual, and Ms. Stascak plays the part very well.

The young students in the cast are all from the Island: Zada Clarke, Sarah Johnson, Vivian Ewing, Emma HallBilsback, Marlan Sigelman, and Katie Clarke. They play well off each other and seem to thrive on Ms. Manufo's direction. Marlan Sigelman as Peggy Rogers trembles with fear in her scenes with Mary Tilford. Ms. Sigelman uses her entire body to convey the fear.

Zada Clarke plays the character of Rosalie Wells nicely. Rosalie is the linchpin in Mary Tilford's plot. Ms. Clarke uses a combination of strength and fear in her performance.

The set design by Stephen M. Zablotny is realistic with pale yellow walls, just a shade below happy. The set decoration shows the playhouse's usual attention to details.

This play is the first of the 25th season, which will feature the work of American playwrights who are or were Vineyard residents. "The Children's Hour" is a fine production and a good start to the summer season. Don't miss it.

"The Children's Hour," Tuesday through Saturday, Vineyard Playhouse, 24 Church Street, Vineyard Haven. Curtain times: Tuesday and Wednesday, 7 pm; Thursday, 3 pm and 8 pm; Friday and Saturday, 8 pm. Previews Wednesday, June 14, and Thursday, June 15, show runs through July 1. Ticket prices range from $20 to $35 with discounts for previews, matinees, and Tuesday night shows. For reservations or information call 508-696-6300. Visit www.vineyardplayhouse.org. This play is not recommended for children under 12 years of age.