Personal note: Twenty-five years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the first musical production of “The Secret Garden” on Broadway. It was a lush and lovely spectacle, but I especially remember the little girl, 11-year-old Daisy Eagan, who played Mary Lennox. She carried the weight of the show on her small shoulders and became the youngest ever recipient of the Tony Award. I remember how, standing for a well-deserved ovation, I saw myself as part of a picture from her past. I have often wondered since then where the trajectory of her life has taken her.
The answer, I’ve just discovered, is: “Up.” The Shakespeare Theatre Co. is now hosting The 5th Avenue Theatre in a revival of “The Secret Garden” – and who should be playing the part of Martha, maid to young Mary Lennox, but Daisy Eagan herself. The audience acknowledged her “return to the Garden” with impromptu applause when she first appeared on stage.
What follows is a production every bit as lush and lovely as the first, but with its own character and emphases. The chillingly beautiful “I Heard Someone Crying,” performed by spirits, Mary, Archibald, and Lily, introduces the zeitgeist behind the story. Ghosts and memories overlap, the very air of Misselthwaite Manor is haunted, cries echo down the halls at night, and the secret garden with its hidden door lies dark and forbidden just out of reach. Not the atmosphere in which a young orphan girl might thrive.
Frances Hodgson Burnett can be forgiven for writing “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and a slew of other forgettable stories because she wrote “The Secret Garden.” It is still a classic, 105 years after its public introduction. Unlike so many central figures of children’s literature, neither Mary nor the invalid Colin is particularly adorable. In fact, they’re peevish, demanding, and thoroughly disagreeable. But they, like the secret garden itself, bloom under the rejuvenating influence of sympathy and care.
Directed and choreographed by David Armstrong, the production has a dark immensity with flashes of beauty and light. Anna Louizos’ scene design and Justin Stasiw’s sound weave haunted undertones into the proper but unnerving atmosphere of Archibald Craven’s domain. Edwardian spirits welcome us to “The House Upon the Hill,” and ghost infested shrubberies blur imagination with reality as they glide in and out of place while Mary and Ben Weatherstaff (Sean Griffin) explore them in “It’s a Maze.” Mike Baldassari’s lights complement the faint sense of spiritual confusion, other-worldly decay, and a forgotten hope lying just below the surface.
Archibald (Michael Xavier), a tormented widower of 10 years, still mourns the death of his beautiful wife, Lily. He grows more bent and irritable, unaware that his brother, Dr. Neville Craven, harbors ambitions for the Manor. The brothers’ duet in the poignant “Lily’s Eyes” reveals the depth of both men’s grief at her loss.
Perhaps the most other-worldly moment occurs when Lily (Lizzie Klemperer) herself comes to life in the portrait of her sitting in a tree. Positioned above her invalid son’s bed, her solo “Come To My Garden” sung in a near-celestial soprano stands out in a score filled with captivating music.
As surefooted on the professional stage as any old pro, young Anya Rothman is a force in the role of Mary Lennox. Losing one’s parents to cholera in a foreign country (India) and being shuttled to an unfamiliar place (Yorkshire, England) to live with a dour and unreceptive uncle (Archibald Craven) is not the recipe for a child’s wholesome upbringing. Mary, however, isn’t easily daunted; she lies in her dark bedroom of the old mansion listening to the howling outside and the crying within with more curiosity than fear. Her discovery of the pathetic but perfectly rotten young Colin (Henry Baratz) produces laughs, as she can match his self-pitying abuses demand for demand.
Another note of levity comes with Dickon (Charlie Frank), a boy of the earth who befriends Mary and teaches her the ways of the seasons with “Winter’s on the Wing” and the playful “Wick.”
It was necessary for the demands of the stage to introduce conflict not found in the book, which is where the machinations of Neville Craven appear. It is he who keeps Colin away from sun and exercise, a virtual prisoner wasting away until the irresistible force of Mary brings him in secret to his mother’s garden. Josh Young as Dr. Craven, though a mildly nefarious character, tempers his dark ambitions with his private grief in a splendid performance of “Disappear.”
This is a five star production perfectly situated in the dark end of the calendar. Accessible to all ages, “The Secret Garden” is not just an enchanting story of rejuvenation and hope; in the form now on stage it is both a visual banquet and a musical delight.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher. You may reach her at email@example.com
If you go
What: “The Secret Garden”
Where: Shakespeare Theatre Co., Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org
Playing through Dec. 31