By Tina Arth
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s novel The Secret Garden has blossomed in many forms since she first wrote it – in 1910 as a serial, in 1911 as a single novel, and countless times since as a movie, stage play, and musical. While the story is always oriented toward young audiences, some of the adaptations go the next step and are appropriate for productions run not only for children, but also by children – true educational children’s theater. The STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy’s current offering fits neatly into this category. Producer Cindy Wilkins and Director William Crawford are practically the only adults with any involvement in the show (other than parents whose chauffeuring services are recognized several times in the program). Other than that, all major roles (on and off stage) are filled by teens and tweens, many of them doing multiple jobs as cast members and in design and production.
The story: young Mary Lennox (Tia Green), orphaned after her wealthy parents die of cholera in India, is sent to live with her Uncle Archibald Craven (Michael Koach) at his estate in Yorkshire. When he is at home, Craven lives in isolation, never having recovered from his grief at the loss of his wife; Mary’s care is entrusted to the stern housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Jessica Woolfolk). Mrs. Medlock basically restricts Mary to her room, barring her from exploring the rest of the house. A good-hearted maid, Martha Sowerby (Anika Hyatt), befriends Mary and expands her world, introducing her to the gardens and the moor. Mary meets gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Damian Woodruff), who warns her away from one locked garden that has been hidden and deserted since Mr. Craven’s wife died. A helpful robin directs Mary to the garden’s lost key, and with the help of Martha’s brother Dickon (Cody Burkett) she secretly brings the lost garden back to life. In the meantime, Mary has discovered a bigger secret – in the forbidden part of the house, she finds young Colin Craven (Riley Reynolds), confined to his room and convinced that he is helplessly crippled. With Mary’s help and encouragement, Colin ventures out to the secret garden in his wheelchair, where Dickon and Mary show him that he can indeed walk. Not surprisingly, all turns out fine – Archibald is thrilled to see his son doing well, and the lovely garden is again open to view.
Green’s portrayal of Mary Lennox is impressive – she does a nice job with the upper class British accent, and she handles the transition from spoiled aristocratic brat to caring cousin and friend smoothly. Like many other cast members, she occasionally delivers her lines just a little too quickly; this, combined with the accent, means we lose a few of her words. Hyatt gives a first-class reading of Martha – she’s bubbly, talkative, and her Yorkshire accent is intentionally harder to understand (even Mary can’t always follow her) but she manages to sell every line.
Burkett’s “Dickon” and Woodruff’s “Weatherstaff” are an interesting pair – both love the earth and have a natural affinity for her creatures, but where Burkett is young, winningly elfin, bursting with energy and optimism, Woodruff at first appears to be a gruff and taciturn old man. In a story of transitions, Woodruff evolves neatly into an older version of Dickon who clearly shares his passion for all living things. The biggest transition by far is reserved for Reynolds, who has to move Colin’s character from a self-pitying, often hysterical whiner into a boy with hope, finally able to experience real friendship and a full life. The audience cannot help but first pity, then admire the young boy and the actor who portrays him.
Hope Edwards’ contribution demands special mention – her solo work on the flute not only introduces the show, it also highlights the shifting moods throughout, and adds immeasurably to the production.
Sets, costumes, and special effects are all primarily the work of STAGES kids. Hannah Vertner’s costume designs are detailed and appropriate, and Nathan Robinson’s work on lights and sound display a level of stagecraft well beyond what I might expect of a 13-year-old. The sets are mostly simple, but the garden wall (inside and out) is quite detailed, and the set design for the fully restored secret garden is stunning. The play is written with many short scenes, and although set changes are done quickly, the effect still makes the show seem a bit episodic – perhaps the audience should be required to rely more on imagination and suspension of disbelief to keep the story running smoothly.
The Secret Garden offers good, family-friendly entertainment and a solid grounding for the STAGES kids in all aspects of the theater arts. There are only three more performances to go – so rain or shine, pack up the whole family and head to HART Theatre next weekend!
STAGES’ production of The Secret Garden runs through Sunday, May 7th at HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro with performances at 7:00 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays.