The Children’s Hour: Tackling Gay Issues in the 1930s and Today

The scandal surrounding the lesbian love affair in Lillian Helman's first stage play still resonates today.

Hannah Van Sciver plays Karen Wright in Front Row Theatre Company & The Pennsylvania Players production of The Children's Hour.

In 1934 playwright Lillian Helman (The Little Foxes, The Dark Angel) wrote and staged one of her first plays, The Children’s Hour. The ballsy-for-its-time work was one of the first to depict homosexuality on stage — following two headmistresses at a boarding school who were suspected of having a lesbian relationship. It was later made into a heart-wrenching film starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine and tonight it’s getting opening-night treatment in Philly in a new performance by UPenn’s Front Row Theatre Company and The Pennsylvania Players. 

The show — a psychological melodrama with a tart political twist — shocked audiences in the early ’30s and even generated controversy when big stars like Hepburn and MacLaine decided to do it in the ’60s. But we’ve come a long way since then. Can a show about a secret lesbian affair (or is it?) between two women in a boarding school still speak to us today? Producer Russell Abdo says absolutely.

“Though the show is indeed a period piece, there is no doubt that The Children’s Hour is extremely relevant in its portrayal of lesbianism and more generally love on the stage. Rory urges not to think how the stories of [the two female leads] might be different today, but how the effects of sexual repression and closet homosexuality are equally prevalent now as they were in the 1930s. It’s hard not to stage The Children’s Hour without the flare of the 1930s. But, if you dress the show down and look at what’s really being said and shown, I think it makes just as much sense and maybe even means more in a contemporary setting.”

The Children’s Hour plays tonight and tomorrow, March 21 and 22, at 8 p.m., and Sat., March 23 at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m in the Harold Prince Theater in the Annenberg Center for the Arts (3680 Walnut St.) Tickets are $10. Tickets can be purchased here.