The Children’s Hour Stuns with Heartbreaking and Thought Provoking Performance

Molly Murphy, News and Features Editor

This weekend, student theater company Major Arcana will be opening The Children’s Hour in the Marren Studio of the Performing Arts Center. While people may be more familiar with the main stage productions put on by Boot & Buskin, I think the Major Arcana shows are the hidden gems of the PAC, and The Children’s Hour is no exception. The Children’s Hour, directed by Milanne Wischmeyer ‘20, is a story set in the 1930s about two female school teachers who are accused by one of their students of being lovers. What follows is a tragic tale of their reputations and lives being ruined by the lie. While the story is set in the 30s, the themes and issues explored are ones that still plague the LGBT+ community today. This beautifully executed piece serves as a bracing reminder of how far we’ve come towards acceptance—and how far we still have to go.

The show featured several stand-out performances, not the least of which came from the extremely talented stars, Nikita Sharkey ‘21 and Anna Cornell ‘22 as the school teachers Martha Dobie and Karen Wright. Sharkey gives an absolutely electric performance as Martha, a fierceness always pulling at the edges of her calmest moments. Cornell’s character Karen, while less fiery than Martha, is still a pillar of strength, right until the play’s heartbreaking climax. Cornell’s stage presence speaks volumes, especially when she’s alone on stage, silent. The two of them have a strong chemistry and create a powerful dynamic for the show to rest upon.

Another incredible performance comes from Arianna Pentecost ‘23 as Mary Tilford. Mary is one of Karen and Martha’s students, a pathological liar, and a bully. When Mary is punished for lying to her teachers, she spreads the rumor that Karen and Martha are lovers to get back at them. Using blackmail and emotional manipulation, her lie successfully spirals out of control and begins to destroy Karen and Martha. Pentecost is believable and captivating as a vicious preteen. It’s extremely unsettling to see such a sinister, quiet violence in a young child and Pentecost plays this perfectly. Some of her other victims include students played by Angelene Guglielmo ‘23, Meghan Guittar ‘23, Lauren Pike ‘21, Sara Hennesey ‘23, and Stacie Cerenzia ‘21. The dynamics represented in these girls encapsulate the fast-paced, all consuming, often toxic friendships many girls experience growing up. The scariest thing about Mary Tilford is that we’ve all been friends with her at some point. Pentecost and the rest of the students capture this idea beautifully.

Mary’s grandmother is played by Autumn Brewer ‘21, and she plays a pivotal role in spreading her granddaughter’s lies without properly fact-checking them. Brewer manages to create a nuanced portrait of an old woman trapped by an ignorant worldview. Mrs. Tilford is all at once loveable, cruel, and foolish. She is someone all too familiar to anyone who has ever been any kind of ‘other.’ The Tilfords represent a very insidious brand of the upper middle class, the kind that believe throwing money at a problem will fix it and that their opinion is the only one that matters. Brewer conveyed this gorgeously in a thoroughly unlikable character that still manages to pull on the heart strings.

Another bewitching performance is by Isabella Contant ‘23 as Lily Mortar, Martha’s aunt. Lily is a washed up actress chasing delusions of grandeur, to the point of suggesting her niece may actually have feelings for Karen and then conveniently disappearing when her testimony is needed to defend the two women. Contant’s over-the-top, carefree demeanor helps to characterize Lily as a selfish, oblivious woman. This makes her performance of anguish all the more breathtaking when she finally returns to tragic news.

Last but not least, Hunter Powell ‘20 features as Dr. Joe Cardin, Mrs. Tilford’s nephew and Karen’s fiance. Cardin supports Karen as much as possible, but even he cannot help the doubt that creeps in. Powell manages to capture the duality of loving someone, but never being able to know for sure if they love you. As the only male figure in the show, he represents conflict: between Karen and Martha, the women and the Tilfords, and Karen and the future. It’s impressive that Powell was able to play such a liminal character with such definition.

Overall, The Children’s Hour is a sobering reminder of how unkindly members of the LGBT+ community have been treated in America. While things are certainly better now, many of the same debates occurring in the 30s are happening now. Should homosexual couples be allowed to adopt children, or work in schools? Can they be fired or denied a job based on someone else’s religious views? These injustices still exist. We cannot ignore them. At its heart, that’s what The Children’s Hour is about: the violence we carry out every day against anyone who doesn’t (or at least is perceived not to) fit the status quo. Today, the play serves to expose those injustices and asks us to speak up against them. Hatred and fear grow only when we let them.

The Children’s Hour deals with many sensitive issues, including suicide, homophobia, and gun violence. Remaining performances will be November 15 and 16 at 8:00pm and November 16 and 17 at 2:00pm. All performances are in the Marren Theater on the second floor of the PAC. Seating is extremely limited so please arrive early.