At once comic and meaningful, the moment foreshadows the change that Mary will undergo after meeting this robin, her first friend (signified by a puppet carried by a rose-clad actress). Mary's temperament comes not only from a recent tragedy but from an upbringing in which she was spoiled and scorned by turns. She needs a "starter" friendship before she begins to wade through the secrets, inhibitions, and personal tragedies that make relationships with people more complicated. Her story, along with some crisp character acting, is what makes this Seattle Children's Theatre production so engaging. Although many audience members will be familiar with the popular Marsha Norman-Lucy Simon musical adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel -- a production of which is currently playing over at the Village Theatre in Issaquah -- this straight play version, rewritten for its U.S. premiere by Canadians Paula Wing and Michael Shamata, is in itself a lucid rendering of the turn-of-the century story.
Although the production is certainly pretty to look at -- Matthew Smucker's set juxtaposes the implied crumbling decadence of a crooked mansion with more naturalistic gardening scenes, and Mary (Sharia Pierce) wears an array of spiffy costumes designed by Deb Trout -- the narrative is not overshadowed by spectacle. Even in full bloom, the magic of the secret garden is that you can actually imagine planting it. Director Rita Giomi wisely allows the script to do most of the work, and while the first act sometimes stays a little long on one pitch, the tale moves briskly.
After her parents die in a cholera epidemic in India, Mary is sent to live in England with her wealthy Uncle Craven (David Pichette) at Misselthwaite Manor. A near-gothic character, Craven is a hunchback, grief-stricken with loss and convinced that the only person who could love him was his late wife. Harsh and frightening, Pichette at times appears to be almost a shade of green, but his portrayal suggests from the beginning that his outward coldness masks a kind heart and that his ability to love could be reawakened.
Mary is a sullen child; she makes demands, threatens, and declares that she hates everybody. The first time we see her, Pierce is scowling silently. A change takes place after the robin leads her to a secret, neglected garden and she decides to tend it. Gardening in the fresh air helps her to grow healthy in mind and body, and she eventually helps the residents of Misselthwaite Manor to do the same. In the second act, the transformation in Mary is apparent when she comes across her bedridden cousin Colin (Tim Gouran), who is as petulant and demanding as she once was. Pierce's performance here is an absolute contrast to her Mary of the first act; when the kinder but still stubborn Mary asks Colin, "Don't you ever say please," we remember that not so long ago, she herself never did.
As Dickon, who helps Mary with her garden, Hans Altwies is the foil to Mary and Colin; a slim version of a curly-haired cherub, he has an unflinchingly merry countenance. Julie Briskman as Mrs. Medlock and Morgan Rowe as Mary's maid, Martha Sowerby, give strong performances. Rowe is particularly good as a firm but cheerful soul whose face expresses more compassion than words ever could. And veteran performer Seán G. Griffin is marvelous as the crotchety Ben Weatherstaff; this is the wisest character in the play, and Griffin rises to the task. In a story that contains some dark subject matter, he delivers much of the comic relief, eliciting gales of audience laughter.
Parents seeking a holiday show that does not rely solely on razzle-dazzle may find this character-driven piece a welcome respite from the sometimes overwhelming productions of the season. Recommended for ages eight and older, The Secret Garden deals with family and friendship, redemption, and other holiday-appropriate themes, but it refreshingly diverts our attention from the winter season to the healing effects of springtime.