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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"The Secret Garden" at The 5th Avenue Theatre Brings Grown-up Depth to a Childhood Favorite

Among the many books I read as a girl, Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's book The Secret Garden remains a favoriteI fell in love with it all over again on opening night of the revival of the award-winning 1991 Broadway musical The Secret Garden at The 5th Avenue Theatre, in Seattle. It runs there until May 6, 2017. The story, originally serialized in 1910, appeared shortly after in book form and remained popular throughout my 1960s childhood, at least. As an adult, I now appreciate this story even more, as moving and meaningful in a most grown-up way. Presented with stunning beauty in all aspects of the sets, lighting, sound, music, costumes, and special effects, it becomes a magical experience.

The 5th Avenue Theater's Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong not only directs this masterpiece but also did the choreography. His exceptional taste and talents maximize the potential of Marsha Norman's book and lyrics, Lucy Simon's music, and the fine cast. The production is the product of a collaboration between The 5th Avenue and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. It includes impressive and award-wining actors from our nation's opposite shore as well as the Pacific Northwest. (You can learn more about cast members and read their bios by clicking here.) 

Josh Young as Dr. Neville Craven in The Secret Garden- Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
Like all children of rich, indulgent, but indifferent parents, who provide material things in place of genuine love and closeness, the young protagonist, Mary Lennox (Bea Corley) was already a miserable, bossy, unappealing, and lonely child when orphaned in late 19th century India. Her parents, there as part of the British Raj, die in a cholera epidemic. So does the woman who comes closest to being her surrogate mother, the servant Aya (Maya Maniar) Other servants abandon the household out of fear, leaving the child completely alone. After being discovered by British military officers, she is sent back to England to live at the Yorkshire country estate of her appointed guardian, a reclusive and hunchbacked uncle named Archibald Craven, played by Broadway and West End star Tam Mutu. 

Daisy Eagan as Martha and Bea Corley as Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Tracy Martin
Meanwhile, the estate's staff tries to be loving and patient with this difficult girl who needs to learn how to get along with others. She has not known parental love and normal family life, or even friendships with peers. Seattle favorite Marianne Owen gives a fine performance as the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. So does Daisy Eagan as the warm and charming maid, Martha. Coincidentally, Eagan herself played the role of Mary Lennox in the original Broadway production of The Secret Garden. She became the youngest female actor to win a Tony Award® for Best Musical as a result. 

Tam Mutu as Archibald Craven and Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
The actual garden in "The Secret Garden" was the special haven of Archibald Craven's young wife, Lily (Lizzie Klemperer). After her death, he sank into a pathetic existence as a mournful recluse who cannot accept or move beyond his loss. Long before Mary's arrival, the gate to this walled garden was locked and the key hidden. Special effects abound in this spectacular production. My favorite was the large artist's portrait of Lily, complete with the rich and glowing colors of a Maxfield Parish painting. From within the frame on the wall, she comes to life and sings, her unforgettable soprano voice filling the theater. 

Ignored by her uncle in his vast estate on the Yorkshire moors, Mary's only companions are her nursemaid Martha, Martha's brother Dickon (Charlie Franklin) and the old gardener, Ben Weatherstaff (Se├ín G. Griffin). From them, this lost and lonely child begins to discover the joys of both nature and friendship, instead of being entirely focused on herself. She also obsesses about the overgrown and neglected garden and wants desperately to get inside. 

Bea Corley as Mary Lennox and Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka

After hearing cries in the night, young Mary discovers another secret. Confined to his room is her equally miserable cousin, Colin Craven (Guthrie Greenwood Bettinger), a boy about her age. He is the son of her Uncle Archibald and late Aunt Lily. After his mother died in childbirth, for all the following years, he was hidden, kept in bed, and sometimes drugged by a physician uncle, Doctor Neville Craven (Josh Young), Archibald's younger brother. The decision was supposedly an attempt to preserve the seemingly fragile life of the tiny infant, and out of fear that he would inherit his father's deformity. This part of the story is the most difficult to fathom, but true to the book. Archibald, because of his unbearable grief, sees his son only when the boy is asleep. The doctor, whose motivations complicate the plot, has convinced the child that he cannot walk and will die. After Mary's intervention, his life will change. The garden will come to symbolize the very idea of spring and rejuvenation, both botanically speaking and within the human heart. 

Lizzie Kelmperer as Lily Craven and Coleman Hunter as Colin Craven in The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
Mary and Colin, each dealing with challenges and circumstances imposed on them by adults, will finally discover within the walls of the Secret Garden the freedom and joy every childhood should include. Both of these young actors amazed me with singing abilities beyond their years. They sang with confidence, clarity, and volume, worthy to perform with the adult actors around them, whose vocals were consistently excellent, moving, and beautiful. At times, this musical seems more like opera, accompanied by the theater's outstanding orchestra, at its best. In fact, this entire production is The 5th Avenue at its best, in every way.

The Cast of The Secret Garden - Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka
If you need to be uplifted by a story about hope and the renewal of the spirit, this is it. And speaking of spirits, this musical is populated with them, eight spirits in all. Illuminated and ever present, they poignantly suggest that past and present may exist simultaneously, with our absent loved ones still near, though unseen. The loved ones surrounding me when I was the little girl who read this book decades ago, seemed close as I sat in the audience. Revisited your own memories of childhood wonder and innocence, in the context of your adult perspective. Make plans now to see The Secret Garden.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

"Evidence of Things Unseen" at Taproot Theatre Poignantly Mirrors Real Life — A Review

 No matter who you are, the play Evidence of Things Unseen, at Seattle's Taproot Theatre now through April 29, will feel personal to you. Life is complicated, for all of us. This finely crafted drama by Seattle native Katie Forgette takes the raw clay of that simple truth and sculpts a story filled with the pain of grief and the release of humor, tension and tenderness, the desire for revenge and the need to let go. Forgette's complex characters will remind you of friends, family members, or even yourself. Their conversations sound natural and believable, spiced with wittiness. Above all, this beautifully acted play is a story of finding grace.

Michael Winters, Christine Marie Brown and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Two very different sisters each love their elderly father and want to help him deal with a tragedy even as they struggle to do so themselves. Jane (Jenny Vaughn Hall, who impressed me before in Best of Enemies) turns to her Christian beliefs while her sister Abigail (Christine Marie Brown) has little patience with all of that. Their opposing views create seemingly irreconcilable conflicts. In spite of their obvious love for each other, jealousies and insecurities surface. Choosing action over passivity, Abigail seeks justice above all, but will find that it is not a simple or satisfying matter. Their most lovable father, Jack (Michael Winters), a former academic, is living in a care facility, where bird watching remains his only joy. Their three-partner dance involves fluid shifts of protectiveness, parent/child dynamics, and personal power. They perform this dance to the music of genuine love and concern for each other, even while not always quite in step.

The fourth character, Daniel (Chip Wood), seems to be the axis of guilt and regret, from which fateful consequences swirl outward to envelope other lives. Yet he has his own story too. The script raises seriously questions about responsibility and accountability when personal pain leads to choices that affect others.

Then there are the ghosts who also dwell on the edges of this expanding universe, beyond reach, but forever a part of it. We all have those. 

Christine Marie Brown, Michael Winters and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Another kind of loss examined, if lightly, in this play is the very real loss of personal power over one's bodily capabilities, range of choices, and living circumstances, as aging occurs. Jack's sense of losing his significance to society feels painfully real, thinking of our own parents and what lies ahead for each of us. What he must face reminds me of a sad observation. No matter how well life is lived, or how many decades people have faithfully "paid their dues," they never seem to reach the point where the work is done and they can simply, happily, coast along. Even to the very end, most of us will continue to be called upon to face and adjust to loss and change.

We all have families. We all experience loss. We all struggle, at times, to understand why things happen the way they do. And that goes for even the most religiously devout among us. At one point, the frustrated Jane looks heavenward and says, "You can step in any time now!" Is there really a grand plan behind the way lives intersect as they do, or do events happen randomly? Can we love and  work together for a greater good, even we disagree? These questions and more, make the play relatable to every person in the audience.

Beautifully spare in terms of props, actors, and explanations, the play manages in only about 80 minutes, and with a storyline covering only a few days, to give us the sense of decades of marriage, misunderstandings, mistakes, and personal journeys of growth.  Scott Nolte's excellent direction draws the best from these fine actors and a powerful script that also includes many very funny lines. I have seen so much great acting at Taproot, and this is some of the best. 

Michael Winters and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Through the use of sound effects—singing birds and flowing water—we immerse ourselves in the peacefulness of nature. In contrast to these imagined bucolic scenes, however, is the background to this stage set, which, frankly, detracted. I have always loved the sets at Taproot, and expect to again, but not this one. I would describe it as a tangled, thorny-looking, and slightly disturbing frame at the back of the stage that seemed incongruent with the story, although dramaturg Sonja Lowe would disagree. In an article in the program titled Fragmented Wholeness, she explains how the abstract structures Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira creates from found scraps of wood, refuse of the streets, inspired scenic designer Amanda Sweger. Meant to represent "brokenness and wholeness," its symbolism was apparently too subtle for my mind. Instead, it merely distracted from a beautiful, although painful, story. At times, I felt the same way about the music, although the sound design in general was well done.

Those were the only two slight negatives in this most worthwhile and moving production. As usual, Sarah Burch Gordon's costume design is pure perfection. The way she dressed these characters said as much about their personalities and tastes as any lines spoken.

This intense and beautifully acted play brings memories of our own moments of family drama, sibling tensions, and questions that remain unanswered. The tenderness I felt toward the father, Jack, clearly came from my own experiences at the end of my own father's life. In the case of this particular family in Evidence of Things Unseen, the things unseen, the "truths," can only be viewed from a distance, by stepping back far enough from ourselves and our own perceptions to see the greater whole, the biggest of the big pictures. The evidence that meaning does exist must be, simply, the existence of love. Reconnect with yours at Taproot. I highly recommend this play.

For tickets, see  or call (206) 781-9708.