The Secret Garden

Local Arts Reviews

The Secret Garden

Beverly Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theatre, through Aug. 7, Running time 2 hrs, 30 min

The magic behind seedlings is that with enough love, attention, sunlight, water, and nourishment, they will blossom into beautiful things. Well, it's not that mystical, actually. When living things are left unattended, without all the proper elements to keep them alive, deadness creeps in. People have the same basic requirements: When left alone, they scowl, grow bitter, weaken, and eventually pass into death with little respect for the life they were once living. This all sounds rather gloomy, but, shhhhh, it's part of one grand secret so obvious that it's easily taken for granted. We all need somebody to care about us, and we must do the same in return.

The Secret Garden is a tale of healing and growth that features one lonely, orphaned girl with a heavily embittered heart. From a decadent English colony in India destroyed by a choleric outbreak that wipes out her entire community, the young Mary Lennox is sent to her never-before-seen home of heritage: the land of gardens and manors, England. What happens here is wrought with longing and pain, but eventually time passes and grief over loved ones becomes less paralyzing, literally, as Mary's young crippled cousin Colin learns how to walk again urged by Mary's matching snotty temperament and tough love.

Zilker Theatre Productions has done well with this sobering yet touching story. Director Rod Caspers lures us into a world that is both majestic and frightening: Specters are always watching the living, and the living are constantly remembering the dead in a dance between memory and loss. Corley Pillsbury handles the role of Mary Lennox with confidence, and her singing is lovely. Mary's uncle, Archibald Craven – with whom she lives after her parents die – is nicely portrayed by Dan Sullivan. Much of the music in the show is challenging – there are lingering high notes and consistently quivering and hesitant rhythms – but Sullivan, the orchestra led by Lyn Koenning, and many others in the cast tackle it admirably. The choreography of Judy Thompson-Price is specific to the time period, using ballroom waltzes, Irish jigs, and the flurrying movement of phantoms to enchant the space.

The most spectacular aspect of this production is the lavish set design by J. Richard Smith. Trees are made from tall, moveable scrims; a large portrait of Archibald's deceased wife is also sheer so that the ghostly figure of Lily can sing from behind her painting. Levels vary behind the backdrop, making the household's enormity transparent as workers are seen in different boxes of rooms. Much attention is paid to detail in the furnishings that place stage-time in the late 19th/early 20th century. The costumes, designed by Susan Branch, are also extravagant, with the "Dreamers" or ghosts wearing white gowns or British military dress. Even the staff at the manor look good in their caps and aprons. Robert Whyburn's lighting saturates the action with dreary tones of a castle without windows, but when spring comes, dozens of droplets of pinks, blues, reds, and greens paint the set.

It is apparent that high production values coupled with an endearing musical are sensible in this ZTP show. Despite its seemingly morose story, The Secret Garden is most assuredly uplifting, even tear-jerking for the more sentimental folk. Come to the garden, Lily sings, and witness the wonder there.

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The Secret Garden, Zilker Theatre Productions, Rod Caspers, Corley Pillsbury, Dan Sullivan, Lyn Koenning, Judy Thompson-Price, Richard Smith, Susan Branch, Robert Whyburn

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