Many women of a certain age can recall when their mothers pulled down a volume of The Secret Garden, usually illustrated, from the book shelf and said “Here, I think you will like this. I know I did when I was your age.”
And there you sat, turning the pages and poring over the Victorian-style illustrations, lost in a world where a girl gets to be the hero and saves not only herself, but others around her, in her quest to find a place where she belongs. How we longed for a secret garden of our own, a small place with a gold key, where we could grow things and dream and be ourselves—and often that meant being sad.
How potent those words and that book was—and is—for girls who may be brought up thinking that girls are princesses needing to be rescued and to always smile and keep a cheerful countenance. How world-widening it was to encounter the main character, Mary Lennox (a preternaturally talented Caitlin Cohn, possessing a sweet, childlike voice and a will of iron), who was willful and often sour, what in the early 20th century was called being “contrary.”
If your first experience of The Secret Garden is not the novel, but Center Stage’s entrancing production of Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon’s (music) musical adaptation, the transformational qualities of this story remain gloriously intact. Under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge, the novel comes to life with startling creativity and joy as the cast and artistic team conjure a world where magic and sadness, ghosts and the living, easily comingle.
No one is alone in this tale of abandonment and reconciliation, as the spirit world guides and haunts the present life of Mary Lennox and the other characters struggling with the paradox of hanging on to memories while letting go.
Mary has quite the burden to bear on her slight shoulders. Having lost her parents and everyone else around her in a cholera epidemic in 1906 India, Mary is wrenched from everything she knew to the heaths and moors of Yorkshire England. She is taken in by her only surviving relative, Archibald Craven (a Byronic Kevin Earley),a distracted and distant man still in deep mourning over the death of his wife Lily (the gossamer Brandi Burkhard), the sister Mary’s mother.
He’s a gloomy man living in a big, gloomy house full of secrets–some of them kept with burning resentment by his young brother Dr. Neville Craven (Adam Monley, impeccably passive-aggressive). For years, he’s kept a whopper of a secret–Archibald’s son Colin (Anthony Frederickson), an invalid boy frequently bratty and imperious in his desire to be heard.
Mary is instructed to be a good girl—keep quiet and out of everyone’s way. But she’s full of fury and confusion. She’s got grieving to do and is not only profoundly lonely but uncertain of where she fits in—or that she ever will. With the help of a high-spirited servant Martha (Charlotte Maltby, in thrilling voice and fervor) and her landscape-loving brother Dickon (Cameron Bartell, dynamic and charming as a young man more at ease outdoors), Mary experiences the healing power of nature and gardens as she purposefully carves a small place for herself.
THE SECRET GARDEN
October 30 – November 29
700 North Calvert Street
Baltimore, Md 21202
2 1/2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $19 – $64
Details and Tickets
This story of friendship and a different kind of family unfolds with swirling creativity and circular movement that combines striking visuals with Simon’s ghostly, operatic score and Norman’s intricate lyrics. Dodge’s staging combines puppetry and bold visual flourishes with the more delicate aspects of a chamber musical, which is seamlessly all of a piece.
She has Mary’s life constantly ringed with ghosts—her father (Dan Beckmann), mother (Jessica Van Kipp), Lily and most vibrantly, her former attendants Fakir (Vishal Vaidya) and Ayah (Anita Vasan), constant reminders of the magic and mystical parts of life always available to her. Vasan is especially affecting as a sari-clad manipulator of a robin puppet—the bird who “speaks” to Mary and leads her to Lily’s secret garden—a graceful reminder that the dead never truly leave us.
The cholera epidemic and fallout are staged using tall puppets with enormous Edwardian-style heads reacting to the tragedy with long curtains of tears falling from their eyes. The feathery, fluttering sense of movement is carried through with the manipulation of fans and lace handkerchiefs throughout, which give a sense of the period but also the stirring possibility of freedom.
That’s what this sumptuous Center Stage production is all about—freedom and possibilities. That Mary and Archibald will be freed of grief and let their ghosts rest. The possibility of family and friendship with Colin and Dickon. The liberation of watching a young girl save the day while saving herself.
The Secret Garden . Book and lyrics: Marsha Norman . Music: Lucy Simon . Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett . Director and Choreographer: Marcia Milgrom Dodge . Music Director: Sariva Goetz . Set Design: Narelle Sissons . Costume Design: Leon Wiebers . Lighting Design: Matthew Richards . Sound Design: David Bullard . Puppet Design/Construction: Puppet Kitchen Production, Inc. . Stage Manager: Amber Dickerson . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.