The Secret Garden
by Paul Ledoux (adapted from the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett)
Theatre New Brunswick
When The Secret Garden was originally published, in 1911, it was into a world in which people needed to be persuaded that being outdoors was good for you, that digging in the dirt was healthy and not just something one had the servants do, that fresh air was probably the cure for whatever might ail you. It was a world in which Tarzan grew up strong and pure because he wasn't corrupted by civilization, and a world in which Sir Robert Baden-Powell wanted to take a nation of young boys out of the drawing room and make them into Scouts, a world in which plain, pure food was to replace the overcomplicated and overcooked cuisine coming out of those dark Victorian kitchens. All these values, along with a profoundly British enthusiasm for gardening, suffused the book with a healthy glow that has made it one of the classics of children's literature.
It may be that these outdoorsy virtues speak once again to an age preoccupied with worries over fast-food-devouring, video-game-obsessed and overweight children. However you explain it, there have been, in the past couple of decades, what seems dozens of dramatic adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett's preachy masterpiece. It's been made into a musical, a made-for-TV movie, and who knows how many stage adaptations, including one done by our own Theatre New Brunswick a dozen years ago or so. It's not clear why we needed still another, but that didn't deter Paul Ledoux (who ignored the same question in deciding to do an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which TNB performed last year as its annual Christmas offering for the family).
Perhaps "because it's there" (another expression of British outdoorsiness) is enough explanation. Certainly it's a challenge. The book's wholesome preachiness makes many adults reading it to their children cringe on occasion, and its power comes almost entirely from baroque descriptions of gardens, the Yorkshire moors, and the vast gloomy manor house with its closed up rooms, out in the midst of the moors like a setting for a murder mystery. The stage doesn't do vastness or gardens very well, so we have to make do with plot and character.
Plot we have: it's straightforward, if not especially dramatic. Mary Lennox, neglected and spoiled by absentee parents for her first ten years in British India, is suddenly orphaned by cholera and sent to live at Misslethwaite Manor, the home of her ill and depressed widowed uncle. There she encounters the bracing air, the fecund soil and the sturdy yeoman stock of rural England, and is soon rendered healthy and ebullient. She discovers, hidden away in one of the many rooms of the manor, an apparently dying cousin, the depressed son of the depressed uncle, and setting to with sturdy English pluck, administers to him the medicine that's been administered to her, and it isn't long before all is well and the depressed uncle is home discovering that what had seemed the House of Usher has been cleaned out with a gale of fresh air, and the abandoned and locked up garden where his wife had died has become an exhibit from Better Homes and Gardens.
If there's not much material there for drama, there's lots of character. There's Mary Lennox, who begins as Mary Quite Contrary -- an asocial, sickly and repellent isolate -- and ends as an incipient Mary Poppins. There's the depressive uncle, Mr. Craven, mired in grief and guilt; there's the hard case Mrs. Medlock, firm and cold like any good Victorian housekeeper; there's Martha, the working-class maid, practical and realistic and healthy and rural. There's her brother Dickon, a kind of Tarzan of the moors, who speaks with the animals and is a kind of god of rustic virtues and health. There's the loyal, crusty old gardener with a heart of gold, Ben Weatherstaff. There's the sickly Colin, bedridden and (one would have said) consumptive, convinced he's going to die by the time he's eleven, but who by the end is dashing about and climbing trees, as ruddy-faced and healthy as any rustic Yorkshireman.
Ledoux, however, isn't satisfied with this: he adds two characters of his own, Eileen and Geraldine, children of indeterminate age, one upbeat, one dour, who seem either to be imagining the story or telling it, or perhaps just watching it develop (it's not quite clear, and that's one of the central problems the TNB company has to face).
Given all these challenges, the TNB production gives it a pretty good shot. The set, by Michael Gianfrancesco, incorporates a large revolving center section which neatly fits into Ledoux' idea that the story is somehow inside Eileen and Geraldine's world, and which can switch easily between the script's main sites. The garden, which comes to life backstage, is lovely (if not quite the monumental floral display some playgoers may remember drawing gasps in TNB's last production of this play). The large cast is effective and disciplined.
The dialogue, especially at the beginning of the evening, is stiff and uncomfortable and Ledoux's exposition is awkward, but even so Rebecca Fitzgerald and Elisabeth Lagerlöf, two graduates of the TNB Performing Arts Academy, who play Eileen and Geraldine, manage to engage us in the action without, as far as I can see, having any motives provided for them by the playwright. As "invisible" propsmistresses and puppeteers, and occasional interpreters of the action, they're lively and disciplined, carrying off, for example, the puppet-show exposition of the cholera epidemic quite effectively.
From her first appearance on stage, Jennifer Toulmin, who plays Mary, is energetic, skilled, magnetic and clear, and if she never seems a convincing ten years old, it stops being very important fairly soon (indeed, none of the "children" in the production seemed authentically so young, but after a while it's rather like a Shakespeare production where the women are played by boys: you simply accept it). This Mary holds our attention and even triumphs over lines like "Oh no, dear, sweet, kind Mrs. Medlock, boarding school would be terrible. I promise I won't snoop anymore and . . . "
Patricia Vanstone's Mrs. Medlock is a stock figure out of commedia del'arte, stiff, pompous, authoritarian and riding for a fall (which, of course, she takes at the end when all her dire predictions are proven false). Walter Learning, as Ben, is, as one might expect of this old pro, warm, engaging, avuncular, and a solid center when he was on stage -- which wasn't as much as we'd have liked, in spite of the fact that his character is, like Mrs. Medlock's, a walking cliché.
Peter van Gestel makes the character of Dickon almost believable, with the most authentic Yorkshire accent I heard on stage, and with a quiet, unassuming certainty that overrode what is the fundamental silliness of the role, as a kind of avatar of the wholesome country life on the moors. Matt Bois, as Colin, was convincingly petulant but seemed far older than ten -- and pretty robust for a bedridden weakling, supposedly at death's door. His repeated triumphant mantra, after his recovery, is a reiterated "Magic is alive," a line that seemed impossible to repeat so frequently with any authority (one thought of Tinker Bell). Jen MacDowell as his sister Martha is an effective foil to Mary's tantrums, though her role rather evaporates as the play goes on, and she's replaced by Dickon as the main representative of Yorkshire healthfulness. And Declan O'Reilly was convincingly depressed as Craven, though I couldn't figure out what, exactly, were the motives of his second role, as Dr. Craven, the possibly predatory brother (Mrs. Medlock introduces the idea that if Colin dies Dr. Craven would be next in line to inherit Misslethwaite Manor -- an idea Burnett also played with -- but in the end neither actually turns out to be a villain).
Finally, though, in spite of the cast's hard, professional work it wasn't clear that the production managed to capture all the naive faith in clean air and growing things one eventually gets carried away by in reading the book. The "magic" that's alive in the book is a magic rooted in the earth that Mary asks her uncle for at their first meeting, In the TNB production it seems more like just general all purpose magic that turns the two young lives upside down.
Every year I hope that TNB's pre-Christmas show will be one that will help children experience the transformation of stage magic into the real transforming magic of theatre. Many recent holiday shows haven't offered much chance of that, and I'm not certain this one does -- it's certainly worth seeing, but whether children will find it possible to get past all the talk and exposition is an open question. The disappointingly small opening night house didn't offer much evidence.