Elisabeth Moss and Keira Knightley
in The Children's Hour
(© Johan Persson)
Elisabeth Moss and Keira Knightley
in The Children's Hour
(© Johan Persson)
In 1933, when Lillian Hellman wrote her first play, The Children's Hour, now being revived at the Comedy Theatre, she was heading boldly into uncharted territory. Taking on lesbianism, as well as the repercussions of a brazen lie at a small girls' school in a small and small-minded New England town, hardly left room for subtlety. How she hammered home her points to a fault is now easy to see in the ultimately effective production, starring Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss under Ian Rickson's forceful direction.

While the play has its persuasive moments, one can see how it's aged. That's not because the subject matter has become rusty -- how a vindictive child can ruin the lives of two young women, Karen Wright (Knightley) and Martha Dobie (Moss), remains relevant. It's because were Hellman writing the play today, she'd do it in a more economic shorthand.

The avenging youngster is Mary Tilford (Bryony Hannah), who's constantly getting into trouble and requiring chastisement by Karen and Martha. Lording it over her classmates in a protracted series of actions that press home her sinister ways to excess, she claims the punishments are undeserved. On the day the play begins, she ups the ante by stringing together overheard remarks and informing doting grandmother Amelia (Ellen Burstyn) that the two sympathetic teachers are having an unnatural relationship.

Mrs. Tilford spreads the gossip so quickly that within hours parents are pulling their offspring out of the academy. When Karen and Martha bring a libel suit against Mrs. Tilford, who never questions Mary's veracity, they lose it--in large part because an important witness for the plaintiffs, Martha's dizzy aunt, Mrs. Lily Mortar (Carol Kane), fails to show up. Also caught in the spreading vortex is understanding Dr. Joseph Cardin (Tobias Menzies), whose frequently postponed engagement to Karen becomes further threatened.

As the damaging incidents pile up -- and even more circuitous talk about the Karen-Martha relationship abounds and Mary's machinations thicken -- it's possible to wonder why the in-charge women don't pick up on the hold Mary has on her classmates. Had Hellman depicted them as naïve, the situation might be credible, but Karen and Martha are shrewd, observant women.

The show still affords wonderful opportunities for actresses to shine. Knightley and Moss seem uncertain at the beginning, but when they reach the final scenes, they muster great power. Burstyn brings a misguided dignity to her role, and wild-haired Kane misses no chance to make Lily complex trouble. As demonic Mary, Hannah all but steals the scenes she's in.

Incidentally, even though three of the actors working hard here are American, that doesn't mean they come by the Northeastern accent easily. The English cast members have even more trouble, resulting in an odd amalgam of Downeast and Brooklyn sounds and other strange utterings. While this may affect some people's enjoyment of the play, many audiences will remain riveted by Hellman's still stirring quasi-tragedy.