THE SECRET GARDEN (Arden): Captivating mystery and haunting artistry

Bailey Ryon (seated in center) and members of the ensemble in Arden Theatre Company’s THE SECRET GARDEN (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

Bailey Ryon (seated in center) and members of the ensemble in Arden Theatre Company’s THE SECRET GARDEN (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

Arden Theatre Company closes its 2015-16 season with THE SECRET GARDEN, and the Tony Award-winning musical by Marsha Norman (book and lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music) couldn’t be a more perfect fit for this time of blooming spring flowers, chirping birds, and regeneration after a cold dark winter. Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic Victorian novel of 1911, the captivating story of loss, loneliness, trauma, and despair is filled with mystery and magic, as a devastated family’s sadness turns to happiness through the restorative efforts of one dauntless little girl.

Co-conceived by scenic and video designer Jorge Cousineau and director Terrence J. Nolen, Arden’s imaginative production employs a live video feed of miniature sets on a rotating platform beneath the edge of the stage, with the painted cut-out models projected in a monumental frame that serves as a backdrop to the performance. As the images change, we follow ten-year-old Mary Lennox’s journey from India, where she loses her parents and household staff to a cholera epidemic, to secluded Misselthwaite Manor on the moors of North Yorkshire, where she is sent to live with her unwelcoming Uncle Archibald Craven, a disconsolate widower whom she has never met. In her new home, the initially spoiled and petulant child encounters the spirits of the dead, new-found family and friends, and the eponymous sealed garden that holds the key to the secrets of the past and the promise of hope and renewal for the future.

Elisa Matthews and Bailey Ryon in Arden’s THE SECRET GARDEN (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

Elisa Matthews and Bailey Ryon in Arden’s THE SECRET GARDEN (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

Leading the cast with their eloquent portrayals and affecting vocals are the remarkable Bailey Ryon (a teenage Broadway veteran and recipient of a special Tony Award) as the indomitable Mary and the ever impressive Jeffrey Coon as her strange and despondent uncle. They are supported by a stellar ensemble of actors, singers, and musicians (under Ryan Touhey’s masterful music direction), all of whom contribute splendid characterizations to their roles and rich voices and instrumentation to the score’s exquisite ballads and harmonies (with expert sound design by Daniel Perelstein). From Elisa Matthews’ soaring soprano and haunting presence as Lily (the ghost of Archibald’s wife), to the sweet and melancholy sounds of Sarah Gliko’s piccolo, to the cryptic incantations of Nikhil Saboo and Joanne Javien as the magical Fakir and Ayah, there is not a missed note or a weak link in the production. Lightening the mood with their lovable personalities and amiable songs are Steve Pacek as Dickon the gardener and Alex Keiper as Martha the maidservant, whose pivotal interactions with Mary help to guide to her.

Beautiful period-style costumes by Olivera Gajic transport us into the Victorian era of the British Empire, and masterful lighting by Solomon Weisbard takes us from the tone of oppressive darkness into the joyful brightness the characters find in the natural cycle of life and the power of love and healing.

[40 N. 2nd St., F. Otto Haas Stage] May 12-June 26, 2016; ardentheatre.org.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.