Local Actress Produces Powerful LGBTQ-Centered Play in Milwaukee
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: From left to right: Mary Buchel as Mrs. Amelia Tilford, Ashley Retzlaff as Mary Tilford, Samantha Paige as Martha Dobie, Anna Lee Murray as Rosalie Wells, Kira Renkas as Karen Wright and Teddi Jules Gardner as Dr. Joseph Cardin. Photo by Robert Colletta Photography
Kira Renkas didn’t want to just wait around for a Milwaukee theater company to produce The Children’s Hour, a 1934 American drama near and dear to her heart. So, the local actress took matters into her own hands.
“I thought if I want the show to be done in this area, what better way than to do it myself,” Renkas says.
In The Children’s Hour, the lives of Martha Dobie (Samantha Paige) and Karen Wright (Renkas), the headmistresses of an all-girls school, come crashing down when a disgruntled student, Mary Tilford (Ashley Retzlaff) accuses them of having a lesbian affair. Mary’s influential grandmother Amelia Tilford (Mary Buchel) prompts the outraged community to withdraw their students, leading to the school’s closure.
“These women (Martha and Karen) struggled and worked so hard and because of one lie it all got taken away from them,” Renkas explains. “It was frowned upon back then for the playwright Lillian Hellman to even observe the unfair treatment that women can get, and we still do get.”
The strong relevance that The Children’s Hour still has in today’s age, as well as having many friends who identify as different variations of LGBTQ, contributed to Renkas’ determination to produce the show.
“I see the things they (Renkas’ friends) encounter and I see the struggles they encounter,” Renkas shares. “I talk with them on the things they experience, and I can’t help but feel that they shouldn’t have to go through these things in the name of love. Love is love is love.”
Despite being banned in Boston, Chicago and London when it first premiered in the 1930s, The Children’s Hour received critical and popular success on Broadway. In 1936 it made its way to the big screen with a film titled These Three directed by William Wyler. Due to the Hays Code, which restricted depictions of homosexuality in film, Hellman altered the screenplay so that the story centered around a heterosexual love triangle. In These Three, the rumor is that Martha is having an affair with Karen’s fiancé, Dr. Joseph Cardin.
Kira Renkas as Karen Wright and Teddi Jules Gardner as Joseph Cardin. Photo by Robert Colletta Photography.
Once the Hays Code relaxed over the years, Wyler directed a new version of The Children’s Hour staying closer to Hellman’s original intent for the piece. The 1961 film starred Audrey Hepburn as Karen and Shirley MacLaine as Martha.
Renkas, who holds a BFA in acting from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s theater program, began the journey of producing The Children’s Hour last August. She first reached out to Dylan K. Sladky, a freelance-based director and artistic administrator for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, to join her team and direct the project.
Sladky was more than happy to oblige as he previously played Joseph Cardin in his alma mater’s production of The Children’s Hour. Sladky holds a BFA in Theatre from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.
“The thing I love about this play is that it is such a good example of classic American theatre,” Sladky says. “I wanted to approach the text with a modern sensibility, but stay true to what Lillian Hellman set out to do. My hope is that any audience member watching it will go, ‘wait what time period is this?’ Because it feels a little too close to home.”
After solidifying a director, Renkas needed to next find a theater company interested in presenting the show. Renkas reached out to around 10 companies before Ryan Albrechtson, artistic director of Outskirts Theatre Co., agreed to partner with her. The Children’s Hour perfectly aligned with Outskirts’ season theme, which is dedicated to strong female roles.
“For me, Outskirts has always had two main objectives: to provide opportunities to emerging professional artists in this field, and to start conversations about topical issues in our society,” Albrechtson explains. “Kira’s idea to produce The Children’s Hour hit the mark perfectly for both of those things, especially because we were building our season around the importance of women on stage and off.”
Left to Right: Brittany Boeche as Mrs. Lily Mortar, Samantha Paige as Martha Dobie, and Kira Renkas as Karen Wright. Photo by Robert Colletta Photography.
Hellman’s depiction of strong female characters contributed to why Renkas wanted to take on the role of Karen, in addition to her responsibilities as the show’s producer and costume designer. Renkas says she tried to stay away from other examples of how Karen has been portrayed, such as Audrey Hepburn’s performance in the film, so her depiction doesn’t come off as artificial.
Fitting with the 1930s setting of The Children’s Hour, the show will be set at the Brumder Mansion, a historic Victorian bed and breakfast located in downtown Milwaukee. The child actors portraying school girls will roam around the mansion as audience members arrive, giving the illusion that the Brumder Mansion is actually the boarding school where the story takes place.
“I’m excited for the immersion the space allows us,” Sladky says. “You can’t help but feel like you are walking back in time when you cross the threshold of that house.”
The Children’s Hour, presented by Outskirts Theatre Co., runs July 20 – 22 and July 27 – 29 at the Brumder Mansion, 3046 West Wisconsin Ave. Milwaukee. For tickets visit outskirtstheatre.org.