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BWW Review: There's Something about Mary in THE CHILDREN'S HOUR


Tampa Repertory Theatre (TRT) officially began its fifth season Friday night with Lillian Hellman's 1934 drama, "The Children's Hour (TCH)". TCH is the story of two teachers, Karen Wright (Emily Belvo) and Martha Dobie (Katie Castonguay) who fall victim to the rumors of deceptively sweet-faced student, Mary Tilford (Olivia Sargent).

Mary. I couldn't stand the little sociopath, and that speaks volumes about Sargent's performance. We witness Mary push, smack, and blackmail her classmates. She lies, fakes illnesses, and mocks her teachers. Her actions are unapologetically brazen; the roots from which great soap opera villains are made. In one moment Sargent is vicious, then transforms into overtly wounded; how could the adults treat her this way? You anticipate a scene where she flings herself onto a canopy bed and kicks her feet wildly. She's a monster incased in a living porcelain doll.

She manipulates her grandmother, Amelia (Donna DeLonay), into believing the lie that sets the crux of the play in motion. As Amelia, DeLonay is Mary's clay; ready to be molded into whatever emotional state would work best to her advantage. Despite her actions, DeLonay walks a fine line between playing exasperatingly naïve and incredibly sympathetic. She has emotional baggage, she loves her grandchild, and she's being played. Even when swinging the axe, she seemingly tries to do the least amount of harm to the teachers. Her character isn't likeable, but it's difficult to flat out hate her.

Belvo and Castonguay's performances are emotionally exhausting, and besides their obvious talent, this has to be partly credited to Emilia Sargent's impeccable direction.

Karen (Belvo) seems genuinely concerned about Mary's antics. Though she tries to break through to the young tyrant; encouraging her to be more open and honest about her feelings, she is rebuffed. Throughout the play, Belvo's face is a canvas ready to showcase the range of emotions coursing within. She's optimistic and in love with her fiancé (and Mary's cousin) Joseph (Derrick Phillips) in act one; she's shocked by the accusations in act two; she's distraught and then withdrawn in act three.

There is a cadence to Castonguay's voice that slides effortlessly from cheerful to severe to heartbreaking. There is a point in the play where I was grateful I sat in the back of the theater, because I was unsuccessfully stifling an ugly-cry that was just turning into dry heaves. Her Martha was incredibly human. She was every one of us who feared a change, but couldn't pinpoint why. Her exchanges with her mooching aunt Lily (Lynne Locher), the actress who refuses to let it go, are filled with sarcasm, resentment, and anger. Lily is boisterous, self-involved, and needy. In some ways she's a less evil version of Mary, and Locher is perfect.

Derrick Phillips plays a really good guy thrown into a terrible situation; the fiancé we would wish we had in a time of crisis. In a script dominated by female characters, it's easy to become filler. Phillips makes each of his appearances purposeful. His most interesting exchanges are when he is paired with DeLonay or Belvo; each pairing exposing variations of Joseph's personality.

Tallulah Nouss plays Rosalie Wells, another pawn in Mary's game. As Wells, Nouss is that kid you went to grade school with who constantly reminded you that "you really shouldn't do that;" complete with pigtails. But like that bratty know-it-all, she's not as pure as she seems. Nouss provides sparks of humor throughout the drama. You might want to roll your eyes at her, but you end up smiling despite yourself. I ended up feeling bad for her; wanted to rush the stage screaming, "YOU LEAVE HER ALONE, MARY TILFORD!" But that would have been insane, and who knows what dirt Mary has on me?

Each of the three acts reaches completion so smoothly, that the intermissions are almost upsetting. Why are the lights coming up? I need to know what happens next. This would never happen in a movie. I'm so sorry I compared live theatre to a movie.

The costumes (Connie LaMarca-Frankel) and set (Amanda Bearss) kept us appropriately grounded in the past. Though written in the thirties, the themes presented are not lost on us today. The play touches on relatable sentiments such as being the odd-person out, a fear of abandonment, and overwhelming familial obligation. It handles bullying and coercion; sex, and sin; lies, and loyalty. TCH aptly addresses all of these issues, without becoming a busy public service announcement wrapped in a period piece.

Seriously though, what is Mary's PROBLEM? Though you never get a concrete answer as to the core motive(s) behind Mary's compulsion for destruction, the play provides many options sure to spark theories in the wannabe psychologists within us all.

The Children's Hour runs Thursdays through Sundays until October 4 at The Smith Black Box Theatre at Tampa Preparatory School (727 W Cass St, Tampa, FL 33606). For more information, go to

Photo Credit: Desiree Fantal

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