- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

The musical version of "The Secret Garden" is all grown up and angst-riddled in this psychologically tormented, operatic production at Olney Theatre under the direction of John Going.
The orphan Mary Lennox (Rita Glynn) and her cousin Colin Craven (Justin Spencer Pereira), the two dour and depressed children trapped in a gloomy manor house on the English moors, are the main characters in Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic novel. Mary and Colin are spiritually and physically revived, actually given a reason to soldier on, when they coax back to life a long-neglected private garden once lovingly tended by Lily (Peggy Yates), Colin's late mother whose death in childbirth (how Victorian can you get?) plunged the father, Archibald (John Scherer) into paralyzing grief.
In this staging, Mary and Colin are secondary to the anguish and teeth-gnashing suffered by Archibald, whose mourning rituals include communing with his dead wife's ghost and keeping Colin confined to a sickroom upstairs. There is even a twist Freud would enjoy Colin is cared for by his uncle Neville (Christopher Flint), a doctor who has given up his practice partly out of some demented sense of duty but mostly because he was in love with Lily, as well. The relationship between the brothers is like some particularly nettled episode of "Frazier." However, Mr. Scherer is quite affecting as the doomed, romantic hero whose grief gives him a dark allure.
The role of the children is so underplayed that when the feisty maid Martha (played with hearty liveliness by Sherri L. Edelen) cries out near the end, "What about our Mary?" for a minute there you wonder "who?" Colin is literally treated like a piece of scenery, wheeled out for a scene and then yanked back into the wings. Even Dickon (Stephen Gregory Smith), the gardening lad who introduces Mary to the magic of the garden, is played by an adult, compromising some of the innocent self-discovery that was so prevalent in the novel.
So what's left? The music by Lucy Simon, with lyrics by Marsha Norman, who won the Pultizer for "'Night Mother," has its bleakly transcendent moments, particularly in the opening sequence, which is a variation on the theme of being lost. There are also some fine ballads and torch songs, such as Archibald's tortured "A Bit of Earth."
Mostly, however, there are a lot of ghosts. Beautifully clad in white ball gowns and suits, the ghosts, as one character explains, are not around because they want to be but because someone living does not want to let them go. I wouldn't care to be a ghost either in Olney's production, since they have to haul around noisy, cumbersome pieces of scenery that clank like Jacob Marley's chains. Seems like hard labor for people whose only transgression seems to be dying at an inconvenient time.
The stage at Olney is clotted with ghosts, not only the aforementioned Lily (charmingly, ahem, brought to life by Miss Yates) but Mary's dead parents, friends and servants. Given the general glumness of the living, in comparison they are much livelier and in excellent voice.
Lushly sung and operatic in the deep mauve of its emotions, this "Secret Garden" may only be for the children whose idea of storybook time involves the collected works of Schopenhauer. There is all sorts of suppression and oppression roiling under the surface sexual, psychological, sociological and children expecting a verdant and sun-splattered version of the book will likely be bored by the adult goings-on. The adults might feel a bit burdened, as well.

WHAT: "The Secret Garden" by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon
WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Md.
WHEN: Tuesdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Dec. 29
TICKETS: $15-$35
PHONE: 301/924-3400

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