The Secret Garden is based on the beloved children’s novel by British author, Frances Hodgson Burnett, published in 1911. It is the story of a child named Mary Lennox. Bereft of love and affection, she experiences a glorious rebirth. In the process, she rejuvenates others.
Alexis Kinney is the astonishing young actress who enacts Mary’s transformation. The character is complex, the score challenging. Kinney’s articulation is excellent. She handles harmonies and intricate counterpoint with apparent ease.
The musical begins in 1906, in Colonial India, where Mary’s father is stationed at a British military outpost. She is orphaned at the age of 10 when both parents die abruptly in a cholera epidemic. Before she can absorb the shock, she is uprooted and sent to Yorkshire, England to live with her Uncle Archie, a reclusive man she’s never met.
Archibald Craven (Peter Lockyer) is a widower with a slight spinal deformity and considerable emotional deformity. He is still in mourning for his beautiful wife, Lily, who died 10 years earlier giving birth to their son, Colin (Jon Olsen). Lockyear has an exquisite, supple voice. The actor manages to bring warmth to a character whose melancholia is romanticized.
(Melodrama aside, we might recall that Queen Victoria suffered prolonged grief after the premature death of her husband, Prince Albert in 1861. Moreover, that tragedy reverberated in Britain for decades.)
Archibald’s son, Colin, has been raised as an invalid, secreted in his father’s huge mansion. Dr. Neville Craven, his paternal uncle, forbids the boy to go outside and instructs Archie to distance himself from the fragile patient. Colin is unlikely to survive childhood, so it seems and the specter of death hovers over Misselthwaite Mansion … until Mary arrives.
At first, she feels oppressed by the gloom. The problem is exacerbated by Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper whose demeanor is bleak as the winter landscape. Mary’s future looks grim indeed.
Then, Martha, the chambermaid (Julie Cardia), blows into Mary’s life like a breath of fresh air. Cardia’s performance is riveting. Every phrase uttered by the vivacious actress has a lilt that elevates the spirit. Mary’s sullen mood begins to lift in spite of herself. After Cardia’s delightful solo, “A Fine White Horse,” we’re reluctant to see her go. Martha urges Mary to play outside with Dickon, her brother.
Dickon (Joseph Medeiros) is born to nurture. The lad can beguile a robin or coax a withering plant back to life. He sings, dances and conjures with his gnarled staff in the show-stopping ode to spring, “Winter’s on the Wing”. Dickon’s Yorkshire dialect trips merrily on the tongue. Mary isn’t immune from his charm. They become friends.
At night, Mary is awakened by weeping sounds and wonders whether ghosts are wandering the halls. Indeed, we are witness to apparitions who revisit their loved ones in dreams and inner dialogues. The intersection of natural and supernatural worlds may seem confusing, but stunning lighting effects (Matthew McCarthy) and costuming (Dorothy Marshall Englis) clarify the distinctions.
It is not a ghost, however that cries at nighttime. It is Colin. Although the boy behaves disagreeably, Mary is relieved to learn the source of the sobbing. She is happier still to discover a new cousin, but has little patience with his apparent hypochondriasis and prefers the company of Dickon.
Dickon will teach Mary the art of gardening. Curiosity will lead her into Lily’s forbidden garden. Mary and Dickon are determined to conjure things back to life. That includes Colin. The splendor of English gardens includes “a maze of ways”. According to Ben, the old gardener, “Gettin’ lost’s how you learn.” Obstacles lie ahead. Ultimately, Dickon demonstrates that “a garden [is] where life begins anew.”
In some respects, The Secret Garden is the obverse of Into the Woods. The woods are dark and threatening. The gardens bring the promise of spring, rebirth and hope. According to Frances Hodgson Burnett, “When you have a garden, you have a future.”
The Secret Garden runs through runs through August 21, 2011 at Stages, located at 111 S. Geyer Road in Kirkwood. Information is available at www.stagesstlouis.org or by calling 314-821-2407.