The Secret Garden – Review by Tom Nissley

A splendid production of Marsha Norman /Lucy Simon’s musical adaptation of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s novel about a secret garden in a manor house overlooking the Yorkshire Moors has opened at ACT of Connecticut. Directed by Daniel Levine, and conducted by Music Director Bryan Perri, it is precise and wonderful. The cast of twenty-two persons move from scene to scene with clockwork precision, sometimes making rapid costume changes, and pull the story forward beautifully.

The story begins in India, where ten-year-old Mary Lennox (Charlotte Ewing) becomes an orphan when her parents die in a Cholera epidemic. Mary has been loved by servants, including a Hindi Fakir (Joseph C. Townsend), not-so-much by her parents, but as an orphan she becomes an outsider at a residence where she is taunted with the nursery rhyme, ‘Mistress Mary, quite contrary.’ And then she is sent off to England where an uncle, Archibald Craven (Brian Golub) presides over a large manor house overlooking the Yorkshire Moors.

These three scenes take place within the first few minutes of the musical, aided and abetted by projections across the rear wall of the stage, which will continue to make the imagery soar throughout the show. A reminder not only of the serial nature of the original novel but of how Dan Levine will combine the entire background with the foreground as the tale unfolds. The Fakir, Mary’s parents, and others will often be on the stage, but wearing white costumes, and with bare feet. They are the company of witnesses, who, in all our lives, bring support and history to cheer our growth and successes, whenever we have them. Their use, in the staging, provides what I think of as a special ‘Levine touch’ in this great production.

Mary doesn’t get to spend time with her uncle but she does have support from Martha (the wonderful Laura Woyasz), Ben (John Baker), and an impetuous Dickon (DJ Plunkett), who all encourage her to find strength in herself. Also she makes friends with a robin who leads her to the hiding spot for the key to the old rose garden that was the secret place where her Aunt Lily (Kate O’Brien) groomed her special plants until the day she fell from a Tree branch and, after the birth of Colin (Jasper Burger), died. It was her death that turned Uncle Archibald into a bitter recluse. And it was Colin’s moaning and crying that Mary sometimes heard at night.

Dickon and Ben help Mary to focus on cleaning out and reviving the plants in the secret garden and she takes Colin, in a wheelchair, to see the garden too. Dr. Neville Craven (Matt Faucher – splendid voice!), Archibald’s brother, has been giving Colin too much of a drug to keep him from hurting himself, or, by Mary’s reckoning, to keep him from inheriting the manor house… Either way, Colin becomes stronger, and by the time Archibald returns from Paris, he is pushing Mary in the wheelchair. He runs and hugs his father, which results in Archibald letting go of some of his grief, loving how the garden has been tended, and embracing the memory of Lily without the pain that once involved.

I could write a book more about how fine a production this is, thanking other actors and musicians and the stage crew, and I will encourage you to call 475-215-5497 to beg for tickets to the remaining performances. But chances are you’ve already heard from friends or neighbors who have seen it how good it was and that you must see it too. Because a secret like this SECRET GARDEN cannot be kept a secret. It has – it is – a life of its own. Thank you, Dan and Brian and Erin, and all of ACT. We’re looking forward to another season with you next year.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre. May 22, 2023