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Arden Theater's moving production of The Secret Garden, as reimagined by Marsha Norman, and based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, gives a satisfying if somewhat altered view of a favorite childhood book and movie. In the musical, the adults have taken over the story, letting us in on what was hidden in the novel: A man’s grief over the loss of his beloved and how it affects those around him.
At age 10, Mary Lennox (Bailey Ryon) loses her parents to cholera and is sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor, “a big old house with something wrong inside,” in North Yorkshire. Her hunchbacked Uncle Archibald (Jeffrey Coon), who can barely stand to look at her, promises to care for her, and then turns her over to his housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Sally Mercer), and a down-to-earth maid, Martha (the delightful Alex Keiper). Mary, raised in privilege in India, can’t even dress herself, and guided by Martha and her brother Dickon (Steve Pacek), has many lessons to learn.
It’s a depressing story, especially for a musical, but even I, who grew up loving the tale, was moved as it unfolded, and brushed away a tear as the house lights rose.
Changes for a childhood favorite
I could be critical of Norman’s changes, but they left me feeling both satisfied and saddened. While the book focused on Mary’s journey, which was why I loved it as a child, the play focuses more on Archibald and the invented character of his jealous brother, Dr. Neville Craven, played with sinister aplomb by Jim Hogan. Coon makes us aware of Archibald’s humanity, helps us understand why Lily (Elisa Matthews) would have loved him, and why her loss is so devastating for him.
This story is peopled with ghosts from Mary and Archie’s past. Matthews’s voice resonates throughout, luring us to come into her garden, while Mary’s parents, Rose (Sarah Gliko) and Albert (James Stabp), reassure us that their child was loved at one time. None of this existed in the novel; Mary came alone into an alien world and, challenged and nurtured by those around her, grew to understand love in many forms.
But in this musical version of the novel, when its heroine is turned into a subplot, I have to wonder why. In the book, Mary was a rebel, a young woman who broke the rules and changed everyone around her, even herself. In the musical, the women around Mary are either dead or servants. They do what they are told. Mary’s loss is so insignificant, her uncle keeps telling her, he has forgotten all about her. Meanwhile, the men have usurped the story, making it a tale of jealous rivalry and surviving lost love.
How does your garden grow
The addition of primitive magic to supplant the life force is also odd. While the book emphasized the healing power of fresh air, the show uses magic to bring about healing. Why, I wonder?
Yet, there is much to be enjoyed. Terrence J. Nolen's direction and the performances are strong. Jorge Cousineau’s set and video design are as much a part of the show as the performers. Surrounding the stage with miniatures projected onto a screen as the scenery is both brilliant and distracting — paper dolls stand in for people, fingers open gates, the videographer is front and center at all times. It has the effect of blending fantasy and reality.
However, the technological interference also detracts from the sense of the garden as a living, breathing thing. While the movie and book highlighted the garden, the garden here, along with Mary, take second place to a sad love story. No matter the technique, the garden never quite comes to life.
A theme of the story is that while people, like plants, may seem dead on the outside, we are still “wick” inside — we still have within us the will to come back to life. That’s particularly true of Archie; I wish it had been truer of Mary and her garden.
To read Steve Cohen's review, click here.
What, When, Where
The Secret Garden, book and lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon. Terrence J. Nolen directed. Through June 19, 2016 on the F. Otto Haas Stage at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-8900 or ardentheatre.org.
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