Actors’ Theatre Closes 2021 Season With Lovely Columbus Children’s Theatre Collaboration on ‘The Secret Garden’
Actors’ Theatre wraps a terrific season with an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s classic The Secret Garden, adapted for the stage by Neil Duffield, produced in collaboration with Columbus Children’s Theatre and directed by Philip J. Hickman.
This story of a spoiled child, Mary Lennox (Julianna Chianese), whose lap of luxury early life in India shatters as her parents succumb to a cholera outbreak and she’s whisked off to her uncle, Mr. Craven’s (Shaun Brown) home back in England where she has to learn how to survive in a world that doesn’t cater to her every need.
A lot of the production is on Chianese’s shoulders. She repeatedly proves up for the challenge, racing through the character’s turning outward and finding beauty in community with the same intense curiosity the character develops.
One lesson of The Secret Garden is that pain is more tolerable and joy more vibrant when shared with other people, and the cast’s chemistry makes that plain. One of the production’s shining delights comes from the big-sister camaraderie Chianese’s Mary develops with Megan Gifford’s housekeeper Martha.
Chris Johnson’s comedic timing and flashes of deep loneliness make a similar impression as Mary’s other adult role model, groundskeeper Ben Weatherstaff. Catherine Cryan’s hilarious run as the taciturn Mrs. Medlock provides the ballast and subtle menace the house needs, so the audience never forgets the stakes for Mary.
Lizzie Huelskamp’s Dickon is a burst of unbridled energy, living up to the promise of a character talked about before he appears. Huelskamp’s banter with Chianese crackles. The other side of the coin from Dickon, Mary Lennox’s cousin Colin, gets a potent performance from Michael Broadhurst. Broadhurst’s parallel arc to Chianese’s vibrates with a familial bond that feels true, as did his contrast with Huelskamp.
The Secret Garden is not an unknown story to much of the audience – and I was happy to see such a sizable crowd on the Sunday I went – and Hickman lets the scenes take the time they need, he doesn’t try to enhance the action artificially, enabling the emotion to reverberate.
Several of my favorite moments in the performance came from Katherine Dunham’s puppeteering. In conjunction with Brendan Michna’s evocative set, Dunham deserves much credit for making the garden come alive and be as vibrant as many of us felt reading the book as children.
The Secret Garden runs through September 5 with free performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday in Schiller Park. For more information and donation opportunities, please visit theactorstheatre.org.