Childsplay has begun its 19th season on a triumphant note with a stunningly imaginative production of The Secret Garden.
This version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel is a new adaptation by Pamela Sterling, told in a straightforward narrative style that features a strong structure with a beginning, a middle and a very touching conclusion.
Burnett's book has been a favorite for decades, and was adapted in a 1949 film with Margaret O'Brien and Dean Stockwell, which transformed a black-and-white world into magical Technicolor, in the manner of The Wizard of Oz. Three additional films followed, including a 1993 version directed by Agnieszka Holland.
I had been apprehensive about seeing another Secret Garden after the overblown Broadway musical of the 1991 season. Written by Marsha Norman with a convoluted plot line, the musical intertwined the background story of jealous brothers fighting over a young woman's affections with the story of a child's discovery of a secret garden. The musical was more torture than pleasure.
No so with the charming Childsplay production, which presents this dark but uplifting tale without condescension to a child's intelligence. The reward was to see the deep involvement of an audience filled with children, their rapt faces impressed with the power of the story.
The play begins with a prologue that unfolds behind a curtain of gauze, recounting how little Mary Lennox lost her parents to cholera in India. The death of her parents propelled her to the care of an estranged uncle in the distant English countryside. As Mary arrives in Yorkshire, the gauzy curtain is lifted, and we are introduced to an impressive landscape that suggests a rambling country estate.
Quite contrary, Mary is resentful of all she meets, despite the friendly charm of her new maid, Martha. Presently, as she walks about the windswept moor, she encounters a gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, who shows her the miracle of seedlings sprouting from the earth.
Ben tells her that there is one garden that has been locked up and abandoned since the mistress of the estate died ten years before. He introduces her to a robin, whose trill seems to communicate to Mary that there are secrets to be unearthed.
Soon Mary meets Dickon, Martha's cousin, who has extraordinary charisma and a way with magic. Together, they enter the abandoned garden and try to resuscitate the rosebushes.
At night Mary hears a chilling wail that the servants deny knowledge of. Certain that it is not just the wind, she follows the weeping sounds until she comes upon her cousin Colin, languishing in loneliness, and confined to bed because all his life people have told him he would soon die. Colin's mother died giving birth to him, and ever since his father has shuttered him away from sight, unable to bear the grief of remembrance.
Mary persuades Colin that if he could only meet Dickon, he might regain strength in his atrophied muscles. Once Dickon takes the sick boy to the secret garden, Colin does begin to recover his health, and this sets the stage for a very touching climax.
The Childsplay production is both spectacular and simple, with an elegant series of settings, drops and drapes by designer Jeff Thomson. Magically illuminated by Paul Black's dappled lighting, Thomson's sets are eerily majestic. The appearance of a star-studded night sky prompted a delighted gasp from the young audience.
Susan Johnson-Hood's costumes are perfect, and the original music by Chris Limber adds mystery and an ethereal feeling in its live performance on piano, cello and flute.
The robin is a puppet created by Great Arizona Puppet Theater, and its many movements are manipulated with grace by Ellen Benton.
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As for the cast members, they are most impressive. Their authentic English and Yorkshire accents are the work of dialect coach Barbara F. Acker, and they are very convincing.
Joy Lynn Pak as Mary may be a trifle broad in her indications, but she possesses an openhearted charm that totally involves the children's empathy. Debra K. Stevens is honest and endearing as Martha, and Michael Tassoni makes all the charisma of Dickon palpably apparent. Only Jon Gentry seems a bit mature for the 10-year-old Colin, but his gradual recovery still rewards our hope.
The Secret Garden is splendidly directed by David Saar, and if you can find a child to accompany you, you will thrill to the sorcery of these fine artists as they introduce theatre as a compelling and delightful medium. To the children in the audience, this tale had immediate relevance. I hope they will demand that theatre continue to be a part of their lives.