By the time you all get to read this, another show at the Schuster Theatre, “The Children’s Hour,” will have come and gone. But its impact will linger on. Warning: Spoilers and thoughtful subject matter just ahead.
“The Children’s Hour” takes place at a girl’s boarding school in the 1930s. When one of the girls doesn’t get her way from the teachers, Ms. Karen Wright and Ms. Martha Dobie, she spreads a nasty rumor that the women are lovers. The rumor grows beyond everyone’s control and ends with tragic consequences. As you can imagine, the impact of that kind of rumor in that time period is immense. Martha eventually reveals that she does indeed have feelings for Karen, and upon being rejected, takes her own life.
Martha’s suicide is by far the climax of the show. Though I’m not on the stage, I still play a huge part in enhancing the already incredible acting – I set off the gunshot noise. And it’s incredible the effect simply pressing a button has on me. My hands sweat, my heart races, I become incredibly stressed out.
The effect on the audience is even more interesting to watch. Nowadays it is unfortunately common to see people chatting or on their phones in the middle of the show. But I can honestly say the entire audience is rapt with attention from the moment the rumor is revealed to the last moment of the show. And the gunshot never fails to shock, eliciting gasps, hands clasped to mouths, and on the first Saturday an “Oh my God!”
Natalie Pertz, the actress playing Karen, posted this quote by Cesar Cruz on Facebook during tech week: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comforted.” I couldn’t agree more.
Usually when we turn on the TV, read a book or go to a play, we are expecting to be entertained. And usually we are. But entertainment shouldn’t just mean enjoyment. It should also mean challenging our thoughts and our beliefs. Theatre has an incredible ability to do this because while we can turn off the TV or close a book, theatre puts its subject matter right in your face. It makes it much harder to walk away.
Mental health is becoming an increasingly popular subject in theatre. The musical “Next to Normal,” which will hit the Erie Playhouse in June, focuses on a family dealing with a mother’s depression and bipolar disorder. “The Effect,” a play I hope to bring to bring to Erie next year, looks at a drug trial and the potentially synthetic love between two participants. Both “Spring Awakening” and “The Children’s Hour” involve suicide.
Theatre puts its subject matter in your face. Mental health is a subject that, in my opinion, more people need to address. When they come together, the impact is powerful.