The Secret Garden
Foothill Theatre’s holiday offering is The Secret Garden—a new script that is based on the oft-reprinted children’s classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (The same novel has served as source for another show of the same title—a popular musical that’s been staged locally by the Music Circus, and is periodically seen in a video version on public TV.)
This new adaptation is by Gale Fury Childs and Jonathan Gillard Daly. Childs wrote the adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations that Foothill Theatre staged last year. (The playwrights, who have been working together for 19 years, collaborate offstage as well—they have two daughters.)
The story—for those who don’t already know it in some form—is steeped in late Victorian gloom. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to a girl named Mary Lennox—the sole survivor of a ghastly cholera outbreak that wipes out her socialite parents (along with all their household servants) in colonial India.
Young Mary emerges from this trauma as an emotionally damaged, bossy brat. She is eventually dispatched back to England to live with a relative she didn’t even know she had—the gloomy, withdrawn, hunchbacked (but wealthy) Archibald Craven. He doesn’t want the girl, and turns her over to be raised by the servants who take care of his big, drafty, dreary estate in the northern English countryside. (Craven himself often travels, seeking beautiful locations in hopes of lifting himself out of personal despair.) The story is also a bleak critique of the British class system, and the chilly space it imposes between people at different levels of power and privilege.
So much for red-striped candy canes and wassail bowls. But tales of personal redemption set against this sort of grim background have a profound appeal—witness the story of Scrooge. Indeed, you could describe The Secret Garden as a sort of hybrid in which A Christmas Carol meets The Phantom of the Opera—there’s a sense of Gothic fate, and overlapping use of symbolism in which a character’s inwardly crippling emotional problems (such as prolonged grief over loss of a family member) is often paralleled by physical deformity as well. The dominant character in this regard is Craven, played in this production by Frederick Snyder, whose thinning hair, sad eyes and air of regret make him a good choice for the part. (Snyder was terrifying as a murderer in Foothill’s previous show, Wait Until Dark; in this one he shows that he can also play a gloomy depressive who eventually rebounds.)
Of course, there’s a whole set of symbols involving redemption as well—including a walled-off, neglected garden waiting to come back to life. The faintly Druidic nature talk comes mostly from two working class characters—an old gardener (well played in this production by savvy character actor Michael Moerman) and a boundlessly energetic young nature boy (played by Jamie Lynne Powell-Herblod, who’s done lighting design for several Foothill shows, but displays good chops as an actor here).
Director Carolyn Howarth takes the symbolism to a further level, playing off young Mary’s Indian past by introducing a pinch or two of karma, rebirth and Hindu mysticism along the way—a combination reinforced by the production’s choice of music, which ranges from pastoral melodies by Ralph Vaughan Williams to snippets of sitar.
The show also features actress Tracy Petrini, who dances as a wild bird and also appears as a departed wife and mother. Foothill staffers take two roles—Timothy Orr makes a strong impression in a small role as a doctor, while Karyn Casl shows warmth as a working-class servant from the Yorkshire countryside. Hazel Johnson rounds out the household staff as the stuffy Mrs. Medlock.
The two children at the center of the story are played by Nevada County locals—young Mary is played by high-school student Ariana Rampy, while young Colin Craven is played by seventh-grader Joel Heinrich. Both are given a lot of lines over many scenes, and by and large handle them well.
It’s a moody show that leads to a somewhat transcendental happy ending. Those who know and like the story, or enjoy books of almost any kind, will take to it as ducks take to water. I suspect that some of director Howarth’s symbolism may go over the head of very young viewers, and a few video-obsessed 13-year-olds may find the first half a little slow-moving and talky in relation to their own short attention spans. But that’s more a comment on 13-year-olds than The Secret Garden. Foothill Theatre has once again come up with a solid holiday show that incorporates both literary grace and good dramatic values—and if those are factors that you value, you’ll do well by this one.