The Secret Garden
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
May 5, 2012
Perhaps the only event more devastating than one person losing his or her soulmate is that of a child losing their parents. In The Secret Garden, both tragedies occur, resulting in the play’s two main characters finding one another beneath the roof of a sad English mansion.
A young girl, Mary Lennox, has, in a powerfully staged moment of natural selection, lost both her parents and the Indian caretakers she considered family. Completely alone, she is sent from India back to England, to live with her uncle, Archibald, who ten years prior lost his wife Lily while she was giving birth to their son, Colin. In that time, he’s become increasingly withdrawn and emotionally paralyzed by her memory. In vivid and beautiful dreams, he sees her (an ethereal Jennifer Evans). But as those fade, so does the faint spark of life he still carries.
When Mary arrives, the withdrawn Archibald cannot bring himself to greet her. The combination of his pain and her tragedy is too great. Over time, however, he begins to speak to her, and in doing so, realizes she is more like his wife, and her aunt, than he could imagine. She has “Lily’s Eyes,” he sings in Act 1, and it’s this realization that offers him both the prospect of greater pain, but also hope and happiness. This conflict and complexity is the most satisfying element of the story. There is also the garden, prized by Lily before her death, and a subplot of sibling rivalry on the part of Archibald’s brother, Dr. Neville Craven. Both are critical parts of the story, but offer no new perspectives to modern audiences.
Watching Archibald struggle to live again, however, is truly moving. With Mary in his care, he must decide whether he will offer himself as her protector, or crumple forever under his grief. It’s a wonderful story, and one brought fully to life by the performances of Patrick Porter as Archie and Hannah Lewis as Mary. Porter’s Archie is a man brought low by life. Defeated, he sees almost no light in the world, and in Porter’s performance, this is clear. Because of this, those moments when Archie does gain a shred of hope are made all the more touching. And with Hannah Lewis, he is offered a strong child to play against. She’s got an enormous amount of weight on her shoulders with this play, and in spite of her age, Lewis handles it very well, displaying the sharp changes in emotion expected of a child.
Supporting these two are a great cast. Benjamin J. McHugh’s Neville Craven is crafty and imposing, but also caring, displaying an even-ness that never allows him to become completely villainous. Michael Jennings Mahoney is also impressive as salt of the earth Dickon Sowerby. And although I don’t care for this character, Mahoney is exciting and charming in the role.
With his staging, director Tom Wojtunik works a good bit of magic, using the space’s small stage and high ceilings to great effect. And the intricate and vertical set design of Michael P. Kramer, along with the music by Jeffrey Campos and his band, create a world that is both useful to the play and exciting on its own.
The Secret Garden is not a thrill from start to finish. The intensity of Act 1 seems uneven when compared with some of the schmaltz and “Indian mysticism” of Act 2. And I could take or leave the “secret garden.” These shortcomings are, however, no fault of the production, which injects into every scene strong choices and thoughtful performances, making The Secret Garden an enjoyable, and at times magical, night of theatre.