‘The Secret Garden’ at St. Mark’s Players by Joel Markowitz

St. Mark’s Players deserves the highest praise for their beautifully directed and performed production of The Secret Garden, which has a lush score by Lucy Simon and lyrics and book by Marsha Norman.

Alex Stone (Dickon) and Emma Kelly (Mary Lennox). Photo by Chuck Divine.

Norman’s book, based on France Hodgson Burnett’s famous children’s story, tells the story of Mary Lennox (a very confident Emma Kelly), whose parents were killed by cholera in India. The child is brought to the home of her Uncle and guardian Archibald Craven (Patrick McMahan), who is still severely depressed ten years after his wife Lily (the angelic Catherine Calahan) has died. Mary encounters ghosts and spirits of her deceased family members, a bratty unwell (or is he?) cousin, Colin (a fidgety Merritt Schwartz), an assertive nanny/servant Martha (a  powerful and loving Julie Galorenzo), a tough and loyal housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (the wonderfully mean Chrish Kresge), another uncle –  Dr. Neville Craven (the conniving and twisted Christopher Tully) – whose medicine-making is questionable, Ben the gardener (the grandfatherly John Allnutt) and Martha’s brother Dickon (a lively and scene-stealing Alex Stone), who shows Mary the power of nature and a secret garden.

And what a great venue for this musical – sitting in a large church surrounded by stained glass windows of apostles and holy spirits. In this heavenly space where sermons and hymns preach and sing of forgiveness, healing, and resurrection – the lessons and themes of The Secret Garden found its perfect performance space. This emotionally powerful and haunting production – for me – was a religious experience.

Patrick McMahan (Archibald Craven) and Catherine Callahan (Lily). Photo by Chuck Divine.

Director Eddie Schwartz (who also created the lighting design) spread out his large cast while still making the show intimate. It was a brilliant idea by Schwartz and his Set Designer Charmice Hardy to keep it simple by utilizing a desk a bed, and two black crates. And to show locations and times, a scrim was used upstage where the ‘ghost scenes’ took place. Archibald’s home and the rejuvenated and re-bloomed secret garden were projected on the scim. It was all very effective.

Costume Designers Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword did a ‘colorful’ job dressing the large cast with saris and military dress,. and suits and other colorful outfits. Kay Casstevens provided the simple yet effective choreography.

And a special mention to the hard-working ensemble/ghosts who sang their hearts out: Ebenezer Concepcion (Fakir), Ayah: Alexis Truitt (Ayah), Christian Huebner (Capt. Albert Lennox), Heather Cipu (Rose), Patrick Farley (Major Shelly/Lt. Shaw), Joy Gardiner (Mrs. Shelly/Jane/Nurse),  Heath Dillard (Major Holmes), Amy Baska (Alice), Elijah Lawrence (Lieutenant Wright), Rachel Watson (Claire), Mary Alaya-Bush (Betsy/Mrs. Winthrop), and Nate Crystal, Natalie Davidson, Madeline Heyman, Lily Pond, Miranda Ryan (Dreamers). The harmonious vocals in the opening of the show -“There’s a Girl,” “The House Upon the Hill,” “I Heard Someone Crying,” and in the second act’s “Come Spirit, Come Charm” – were glorious.

And kudos to the exceptional group of musicians musical directed by J.N. Wickert III and Amy Conley (who conducted and also played keyboards). What a treat to hear this wonderful score receiving the respect it deserves – played by a group of talented musicians. It was divine!

And now to the lead performers who sang their roles with great passion and feeling. The highlights for me were Catherine Callahan’s spine-tingling “Come to My Garden,” Patrick McMahan’s sweet tenor in “A Bit of Earth” and “Race You to the Top of the Morning,” and in his beautiful duets with Callahan: “A Girl in the Valley” and “How Could I Ever Know?” Julie Galorenzo delivered a  stirring and heartfelt “A Fine White Horse” and “Hold On,” that you couldn’t help but fall in love with her caring Martha.

And then out of the darkness and into the light strolled Alex Stone! Sporting a wonderful and credible Yorkshire accent (a special nod here to Accent Coach: Clare Palace) – Stone stole the show as the bundle of energy and optimistic Dickon. Like a force of nature – he scooped up the audience into the palms of his hands and never let go. Alex also lifted the spirits of Mary and all those ghosts behind the scrim – during his renditions of “Winter’s on the Wing” and “Show Me the Key” and “Wick” – both sung with Emma Kelly’s Mary – and I smiled watching their faces glowing with joy. Kelly was confident as the frustrated tantrum-throwing and seed-sowing Mary, and was quite good showing the emotional roller coaster Mary endured.

The cast of 'The Secret Garden.' Photo by Chuck Divine.

Patrick McMahan, as I mentioned above, sang the role of Archibald Craven beautifully and I was very impressed by him playing the role less frantically as I had seen it performed in many other productions. This Archibald was real – more human. You felt for his loss and smiled and cheered  when he and Collin and Mary united as one family. It was a dignified performance.

Since 1991, I have seen dozens of productions of The Secret Garden, but few have moved me as much as this one at St. Mark’s Players. I strongly urge you to catch one or both of the remaining performances this Friday and Saturday night.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

The Secret Garden plays through Saturday, May 19, 2012 at St. Mark’s Players – at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church – 301 A Street, SE in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 546-9670, or purchase them online.









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