Phoenix Theatre stages pre-war drama that draws parallels to social-media issues today

Note: This event has been cancelled.

ON STAGE

What: The Children’s Hour
Where: Phoenix Theatre, 3800 Finnerty Rd., University of Victoria
When: March 12 through March 21
Tickets: $15-$28 from the Phoenix Theatre box office (250-721-8000)
Information: phoenixtheatres.ca

It took a post with the University of Victoria for director Peter McGuire to see a plan come to fruition after nearly a quarter-century of waiting.

McGuire, who teaches in the school’s drama department, is finally at the helm of The Children’s Hour, playwright Lillian Hellman’s 1934 stunner set in an all-girls boarding school. Despite his decades of professional experience, and the considerable reputation of Hellman’s work, it wasn’t until he started at the university in the mid-2000s that The Children’s Hour was even a possibility for McGuire, given the resources available.

He had been wanting to direct The Children’s Hour since 1997, after seeing it at the Shaw Festival in Ontario. But the opportunity did not arise in any professional capacity. “It’s not done a lot professionally because it requires such a large cast,” McGuire said.

“They need the financial resources, and most regional theatre companies don’t have those anymore. [The university] has the benefit of having the resources in the department and the students who are engaged to do the work.”

The play is set at a New England school by run two headmistresses who unwittingly become the subject of scorn. When a troubled student suggests the teachers are having a romantic relationship, they are wrongly accused of sin; against a pre-war backdrop where Adolf Hitler is on the move overseas, their personal lives unravel, quickly and gravely, from there. McGuire sees a distinct parallel between old-fashioned fibbing and the endless stream of social-media chatter, only some of which can be taken at face value today.

“Social media is in our lives, it’s not going away. It’s how most of us are getting our news and information. And do we really know what we’re being told is the truth? That’s what the play is about. The story is about a big lie, but there is an element of truth in the lie.”

McGuire and his production team chose not to update Hellman’s original, because it remains vitally relevant. And he’s happy that the opportunity to direct a play of societal consequence didn’t present itself until 2020, if only for the sake of his current students.

“In 1997, of course the internet existed. But how we communicate as human beings has changed significantly. Now, of course, we’re watching in real time, we’re hearing in real time. This is why it was important for me to do this play in our department, because our students are dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. I watch them. They’re affected by all of this, but they’re mindful of it. And I think that’s why our students have engaged fully in this production. I think it’s had an effect on them.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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