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Explore dangers of a lie, power of truth at 'The Children's Hour'

By by dianna wray/
Jan. 18, 2012 at midnight
Updated Jan. 17, 2012 at 7:18 p.m.

Above: Bridget Farias, Errich Peterson and Nikki Zook in "The Children's Hour," by Lillian Hellman. The production runs through Jan. 28 at City Theatre in Austin. Below: Rae Petersen and Laura Ray in "The Children's Hour." The play looks at the damage a lie can cause.

Famed playwright Lillian Hellman was an unknown when her first play, "The Children's Hour," premiered on Broadway in 1934. She rocketed to fame when the play, which examines the power of a lie, premiered.

Over the course of the play, the lives of two teachers are ruined after a vindictive student tells a lie, and everyone they know chooses to believe her.

Karen and Martha have worked hard to build up their boarding school and are just beginning to call it a success when their dream collapses. A spiteful girl lies, implying that the two friends are lovers. The story spreads like wildfire, and everything they've worked for is taken away, almost overnight.

When she tried at it, Hellman was very good at getting nuggets of compelling truths of the human heart down on paper. I've read her memoirs to pieces, and I've always loved her plays for that reason. Hellman is not afraid to delve into the dark side of mankind, and it's this lack of fear that makes her work hold up.

There's a certain irony about her first play's message about the damage a lie can do, considering Hellman damaged her own reputation significantly when it was alleged that many of the stories in her memoirs were imagined or just plain made up.

Words are powerful things, and Hellman knew that. In addition to her famed plays, she wrote a trio of memoirs. The truthfulness of the books themselves was actually challenged in the years after the books were published, but she tells a story about how she came to write the play that rings true.

Hellman was the romantic counterpart to famed mystery writer Dashiell Hammett for years, and it was Hammett who got her to write her first play, ordering her to rewrite over and over until she actually got it right. Finally, she did, and the result was a play that told of the dangers and the damage a lie can cause.

Whether her stories were fact or fiction, she knew a good tale when she found it, and her first play is a clever, biting work written to get at the truth of the dangers of lies and how fear can fuel them. "The Children's Hour" is being performed at the City Theatre, 3823 Airport Drive, Suite D, in Austin. It's still a fine play, and if you're in the mood for a fine evening with a bit of thoughtfulness thrown in, go check it out.



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