OREM — On Friday I attended Utah Valley University’s production of The Secret Garden. I got to campus about an hour early, and it’s a good thing I did. It took me 45 minutes to find the theater. So for those of you unfamiliar with UVU, be smarter than me and look at a map before you go!
The Secret Garden is based on a children’s book of the same title, and follows Mary Lennox, an orphan living in her recluse uncle’s home in England. Lonely and unhappy, she explores the grounds and discovers a garden that has not been seen for 10 years. This secret garden draws Mary, her invalid cousin Collin, and her heart-broken uncle together.
Turning a book into a stage production can be difficult, because books are designed to tell you what is happening and plays to show you what is happening. In this production, there was much more telling than showing. The script had a great deal of narration; instead of seeing the story unfold, we were being told what has happening by narrators. This was especially true in the beginning of the show. One moment where this was particularly distracting was when Mary (Heather Ashton) was traveling to her uncle’s home after her parents’ deaths. A narrator told us that Mary was accompanied on the train by a clergyman’s wife who was very happy to be rid of her at the end of the journey. It sounded like a good story, and I wondered what Mary had done to try this woman’s patience so badly. I wanted to see their interaction. But all I got was that single sentence, and I felt I had missed out on something. There was less narration as the show progressed, but I found myself wondering if there was another way to give the audience the background information we needed without narrating it to us.
The staging also caused a few sight problems. The stage runs down the center of the theater with the audience facing each other on either side, like a runway. The stage was long and narrow, which meant that the actors often had their backs to one half of the audience, or had their profiles to the audience. This made it difficult to see facial expressions. From my seat, I often had to rely on the actors’ lines to understand what they were feeling and thinking instead of being able to see it on their faces. This was especially true in Mary’s interactions with Ben Weatherstaff (Robbie X. Pierce), a gardener who worked for her uncle. Their scenes took place in the long space in the middle of the stage. At one point Ben got extremely angry at Mary for asking too many questions about the locked garden and sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. She had been told multiple times that that garden is off limits, and should just accept that. His back was to me throughout this speech; I never got to see his face. It was frustrating to hear his anger but not be able to see it. I only saw Mary’s reaction but felt I was only seeing half the story. When I see a play, I want to see the whole story, not just the parts that happen to be facing my direction.
The staging was a disservice to the actors because, as a general rule, they were very talented. Heather Ashton (who played Mary Lennox) and Jordan Kramer (as Collin Craven) were especially fun to watch. Both were successful 10-year-olds; they had the attitudes and quirks of small children. When Mary was given a jump rope by Martha (Kaela Keel Hernandez), watching her trying to learn to use it was priceless. No one is born knowing how to jump rope, and her slow but excited progress made her look 10 years old. She would bring the rope over her head, let it lie of the floor for a second or to, then step over it. She did this over and over again, excited that she was getting better, even though she never moved very quickly. Kramer had the self-importance and confidence that some children exhibit effortlessly. He assumed that everyone would do exactly what he wanted them to do. At one point he dismisses his doctor and the housekeeper with a terse, “I have spoken, you may now depart.” Never mind that they are at least 25 years older than him; he is in charge and knows it. This self-assurance turned Collin into the comic relief, which was a unique and wonderful choice. I have seen several versions of The Secret Garden, and Collin generally comes off whiney and irritating. But Kramer had the audience laughing every time he was on stage with his belief that he was utterly in charge.
There were some beautiful visual moments in the piece, in the character of the robin. This bird was played by Morgan Fenner, who carried a robin on a stick, and voiced by a flute, played by Jordan Hall. As the robin, Fenner and Hall conveyed irritation, excitement, fear, and even sarcasm through music and movement. One moment I really enjoyed was when Mary and Dickon (the latter played by Christian Max Richards Jolley) are watching the robin. Mary jumps up and starts towards him. Morgan hopped back and then fluttered on the spot, looking just like a bird that has been startled. It was so much fun to watch a bird on a stick interact with the other characters because it was so clear what the robin was thinking and feeling, even though he wasn’t a speaking character. It was a wonderful director’s choice that added comedy and fun to the piece.
The set design (designer Alison Clare) also added visual interest. At first glance, it looks very simple; a bedroom on one end of the stage and a garden wall on the other. But both pieces turn into other places, allowing the center of the stage to become hallways in the house, gardens outside, or any other location the play needed. It was beautifully designed and added a magical dynamic that works well with The Secret Garden. The moment when Mary finds the key to the locked garden and opens the door was fabulous. Light shone through the open door across the stage as she walked through the door. Then the garden wall piece turned, and she walked back through the door. It was obvious that she had just entered the garden, and the lighting and set made it clear that the moment was important.
I struggled with the script and some of the director’s (John Newman) staging choices in The Secret Garden. But I was impressed with the acting overall. I felt a great deal of dedication from the actors to their characters, which made them fun to watch, even when I was frustrated by narration or bad sight lines. I especially enjoyed the second act, after Collin came on the scene and the comedy and energy picked up. The Secret Garden is a wonderful story, and I enjoyed UVU’s telling of it.