Outskirts' 'Children's hour' tackles adult topics

Mrs. Lily Mortar (Brittany Boeche) discusses literature with student Catherine (Ellie Boyce) while her classmate Helen (Madie Gellings) listens on the couch in a scene from Outskirts Theatre Company's "The Children's Hour.". In front, from left, are students Peggy (Greta Dane), Evelyn (Katrina Liberman) and Rosalie (Anna Lee Murray).

Mrs. Lily Mortar (Brittany Boeche) discusses literature with student Catherine (Ellie Boyce) while her classmate Helen (Madie Gellings) listens on the couch in a scene from Outskirts Theatre Company's "The Children's Hour.". In front, from left, are students Peggy (Greta Dane), Evelyn (Katrina Liberman) and Rosalie (Anna Lee Murray).

By MARILYN JOZWIK

Published July 23, 2018


“The Children’s Hour,” written by Lillian Hellman, reveals perhaps one of the stage’s most wicked children, who with just a seed of truth conjures up a garden full of lies that destroys the lives of several people.

Outskirts Theatre Co. presents this riveting story with an outstanding cast that mesmerized the audience on opening night. You could barely even hear the audience members breathing, so captivated were they by the performances. Dylan Sladky directed.

First staged in 1934, Hellman’s story deals with a topic that was certainly taboo at the time – homosexuality. In fact, at one point the young protagonist can only whisper in the ear of her grandmother what she claims she saw. The play probably would have been censored if it had used the term “lesbian.”

The times have changed, but these strong, memorable characters still resonate – the spoiled, willful girl who manipulates everyone in her sphere; the doting grandmother unwilling to see deception; the selfish, leeching aunt; the hard-working female friends whose close friendship becomes something more in the mind of one imaginative youngster. There is the overarching theme of the evils of intolerance.

Spoiled brat

The story opens in a classroom in the boarding school run by Martha (Samantha Paige) and Karen (Kira Renkas) for the past eight years. Martha’s Aunt Lily (Brittany Boeche), a stage diva to whom Martha has benevolently given a job, is teaching a class of unruly girls. One student, Mary, walks in late with a lame excuse that turns out to be a lie and she is punished by being banned from attending the boat races. She feigns sickness, as she often does when confronted for misbehavior, and accuses Karen and Martha of always picking on her.

Mary runs away from school, back to her grandmother’s house, after bullying her roommates for money. She tells her grandmother of a supposedly incriminating conversation two girls overheard about Martha and Karen. Mary knows what she is doing and that the accusations will keep her from going back to the school; instead, she will be able to live comfortably, without constraint, with her wealthy, influential grandmother, Amelia (Mary Buchel). Amelia, one of the school’s benefactors, immediately calls several mothers—who descend on the school and remove their children—as well as her nephew, Joseph (Teddi Jules Gardner), the school’s doctor who is engaged to Karen.

She tells Joseph, “You must not marry Karen. There’s something wrong with her… I don’t understand it and I don’t want any part of it.”

Realistic fight scenes

Martha and Karen visit Amelia, defending themselves against the girl’s accusations with their own assessments. “Mary is a strange girl, a dark girl,” says Karen. “There’s something wrong with her.” 

Martha and Karen lose a libel trial and the news is all over town (and well beyond), in effect isolating them from their judgmental community. Even the boy delivering their groceries (Chance Wall) stares at the two as if they are freaks.

There is no happy ending here, although Amelia eventually learns – too late – the error of her ways and tries to make amends.

Mrs Lily Boeche, left, (Brittany Boeche) is confronted by her niece Martha Samantha Paige, center, and Karen (Kira Renkas) in a scene from Outskirts Theatre Company's "The Children's Hour."

Mrs Lily Boeche, left, (Brittany Boeche) is confronted by her niece Martha Samantha Paige, center, and Karen (Kira Renkas) in a scene from Outskirts Theatre Company's "The Children's Hour."

The first act introduces Ashley Retzlaff as the pigtailed, bespectacled Mary who has not a drop of goodness in her. Retzlaff is altogether convincing as she taunts and menaces her classmates. She sneers at them, blackmails them into doing her bidding and, when all else fails, physically attacks them by pulling their hair or punching them.  Retzlaff maintains all the qualities of the spoiled child down to the smug looks she assumes when she gets her way. It is a stellar performance.

Violence choreographer Tawnie Thompson has created realistic fights between the girls, especially between Mary and Rosalie (Anna Lee Murray) when Mary pulls hair to get Rosalie to corroborate her tale of the schoolmarms. You could hear gasps from the audience at the cruelty of it all.

Dark humor

Paige as Martha is a bundle of well-presented emotions, dealing with so many people who don’t understand her – the first being her Aunt Lily, who tells her she should find a husband, as Karen seems to have done. Lily contends that not looking for a spouse is “unnatural,” a word that resurfaces in accusations about Martha and Karen. The confrontation is one of several tension-filled scenes handled so well by Paige and others. Paige takes so many lines and, with the right pause and emphasis, makes them stand out or be  opportunities for humor, albeit dark humor. In Act II, Martha and Karen are alone, unable to withstand the icy stares from neighbors should they venture out. Martha, despondent, has no appetite. “Maybe I’ll be hungry in 10 years. It’ll be cheaper this way,” she deadpans. Paige’s Martha mirrors the conflict going on around her with her own inner struggles.

Such is the case with Karen as well, captured beautifully by Renkas, who also is the show’s producer. With her impending marriage, Karen is not subject to the condemnations as Martha is by her Aunt Lily. Her strong, steady fiancé – handled nicely by Gardner – also has her grounded. Renkas’ Karen stays on an even keel until her outrage at the end boils over in a confrontation with Amelia.

Boeche as Lily creates a convincing persona, so full of herself she doesn’t even see the darkness that’s come over her niece.

As Mary’s grandma, Buchel keeps a civil, well-mannered demeanor, but I thought she could have shown more emotion in some of the scenes during the heated exchanges, especially during her penitent confession.

All the girls in smaller roles, as well as Amelia’s maid played by Maddie Wakley, are up to the challenge of the show, including Greta Dane and Katrina Liberman, the two girls who overhear Martha and Lily’s argument and help to create the right mood for the show.

The basement level of the Brumder Mansion works well for Robert Sharon’s set. Director Sladky uses the mansion’s stairs and offstage areas effectively.

If you go

Who: Outskirts Theatre Co.

What: “The Children’s Hour”

When: Through July 29

Where: Brumder Mansion, 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee

Tickets/Info: www.outskirtstheatre.org; 414-367-6484