Playwright: Lillian Hellman. At: Pride Films and Plays at the Flatiron Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 800-838-3006; www.brownpapertickets.com; $25-$30 . Runs through: Feb. 9
These two women, Karen and Martha, run a boarding school for girls. Both have devoted themselves to their careers, delaying plans for marriage or family, although Martha is the sole support of her elderly aunt and Karen is affianced to a doctor respectful of the sororal bond shared by the long-time friends. Then one day, one of the school's pupils ( after reading a forbidden copy of Mlle. de Maupin ) claims to have witnessed her teachers engaging in lesbian behavior. As the ensuing scandal and ruin intensifies, Karen continues to deny the charges, but advises her would-be husband to reconsider their marital prospects, while Martha confesses to Sapphic impulses and commits suicide in despair.
There are many ways to interpret Lillian Hellman's 1934 shocker: Karen and Martha could be viewed as innocent hets ( or closeted gays, at least ) brought down by a vindictive lie, with an increasingly confused Martha coming to adopt the guilt projected upon her. They could be portrayed as victims of anti-gay prejudicethat is, as actual lovers, too naive to anticipate the persecution their affections will inspire. You could even ( in a big stretch of the imagination ) see the play as a thriller, with all the adult women, fearful of their own dark secrets being exposed, turning on one another in their efforts to distance themselves from retribution.
Audiences in 2014, however, are likely to be less concerned with the sexual question, and so Pride Films and Plays director Derek Bertelsen refuses to impose any one subtext on the proceedings, instead allowing us to draw our own conclusions. There is no denying that the adolescent accuser is a brat spoiled to the point of borderline sociopathy, or that her doting grandmother is overhasty in sounding the alarm. Every time someoneusually the doctor, who knows the value of quiet time during crisissuggests that everyone wait to first see what develops, we hope in vain for the fates to stay their swift and destructive journey to the unhappy inevitable resolution.
Bertelson has instructed his ensemble of actors to retain the mystery surrounding the events that Hellman describes. Even during the scene changes, marked by the children reaffirming their silent oath of secrecy, we are reminded that injustice leading to tragedy is a group crime, much as costume designer Chrystle Morman reminds us that white gloves and cuddly cardigans are not always accurate indicators of "feminine" personalities, but a teenage WASP in hair-ribbon bows will proclaim a bully every time.