Arts and Entertainment

Where there’s a wick, there’s a way

From left: Jim Welch as Albert Lennox, Chloe Hosterman as Mary Lennox, and Jeni Hawkes as Lily in ‘The Secret Garden.’ Director Teresa Thuman says that while the musical is great for kids, it offers important messages for adults.   -
From left: Jim Welch as Albert Lennox, Chloe Hosterman as Mary Lennox, and Jeni Hawkes as Lily in ‘The Secret Garden.’ Director Teresa Thuman says that while the musical is great for kids, it offers important messages for adults.
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At a Saturday morning rehearsal two weeks before the opening of Bainbridge Performing Arts’ “The Secret Garden,” actors Chloe Hosterman and Dylan Wilson rehearsed a scene bordering on the metaphysical.

Mary Lennox, the show’s pivotal character, laments the overwhelming deadness of the gated garden she’s discovered. Dickon, the show’s youthful but wise lover of nature, tells her about the “wick” – the secret streak of green that can exist in even the most lifeless-seeming stalk.

The two begin a duet about calling the lilacs, calling the lilies, and bringing the garden back to life.

“All this garden needs is someone to wake it up,” Dickon tells Mary.

This idea, director Teresa Thuman confirmed, is central to the play.

“There’s this life inside. It might feel like it’s dead, but it’s always there and needs to be nurtured,” Thuman said.

The original Broadway version of “The Secret Garden,” which ran for nearly two years in the early 1990s, was based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name.

In it, young Mary moves to the English countryside after her parents die in a cholera outbreak in colonial India.

The home of her Uncle Archibald is rife with dysfunction. Archie has relegated his son, Colin, to bed for fear that the boy will develop a hunchback like his own. Meanwhile, he and the house have never ceased to mourn the death of his wife, Lily, Colin’s mother.

With no-nonsense inquisitiveness, Mary pokes her metaphorical trowel into the household members’ business as she digs her actual trowel into the earth of the late Lily’s forgotten garden. And through the course of the show, sad characters awake to the possibility of life’s richness.

Along with storm imagery and fantasy sequences, the musical makes use of ghosts, or “dreamers” as they’re referred to. These characters, including Lily herself, offer commentary as well as direct and sometimes scare the characters into action.

They also do a heck of a lot of singing; Thuman said she’s not sure the actors playing the ghosts realized how much work they’d be doing when they signed on. But their music reflects a direct relationship between Mary and the unseen environs beyond her own.

“It’s very much about (Mary’s) connection to the spirit world, and how she uses that,” Thuman said. “And musically, it really depends on them.”

Unlike the Broadway set, which had an embellished sensibility, Thuman’s production makes use of the power of suggestion, with set designs inspired by the gardens of Little and Lewis. There’s a central picture frame on which video images are projected, and a set of prism-like pillars downstage that rotate to support each scene.

In this way, practicality and usefulness on the stage support a dreamy, abstract sensibility.

“We have not a single fake flower, which I’m very happy about,” Thuman said.

In many ways, back to the topic of elements that wax “meta,” the idea of a wick applies to the staging of the play itself, or any play for that matter.

At the aforementioned Saturday rehearsal, for instance, the house lights were bright, a piano offered the sole musical accompaniment, and the sets were only half painted.

To add to that, the bed upon which the sickly young Colin spends so much of his time had rollers for ease of entry and exit – but no brakes, prompting stage manager Deirdre McCollom to warn the actors who had to lie or sit on it.

But like Dickon, Thuman patiently and steadily directed her actors through the speed bumps that are typical for that stage of the process, seeing beyond the bare bones to what the show would soon become.

Through these fits and starts, the actors’ chemistry came through clearly, as did the strong and sure harmonies brought out by choral director Linda Sue Welch.

Although Seattle-based Thuman didn’t developer her theatrical chops directing musicals, at a certain point she decided to take one on. After that, she said, they didn’t seem to stop coming.

In the case of “The Secret Garden,” Thuman points to the importance of music to the story; the song of a bird leads Mary to discover the key to the hidden garden, pointing to musical structure itself as a key.

Not to mention that musicals are fun to perform in.

“People love being in them so much. There’s such a passion, and the music gives so much emotional information,” she said. “It becomes an emotional score.”

Like “Urinetown,” the musical Thuman directed for BPA last spring, “The Secret Garden” takes on dark themes. In this case, however, struggles veer toward the internal, as the adult characters grapple with their repressed Victorian psyches, versus external social challenges.

Archie, for instance, is so emotionally stunted in the aftermath of Lily’s death that he’s essentially become a non-parent, virtually alienated from his son.

Colin, meanwhile, chafes under the mantle of his invalid status, his fear and instability manifesting itself as hysteria.

It takes Mary’s willful innocence to turn things around.

“So in many ways, Mary’s story transforms from her own story of healing, to how she uses that to find a way to heal other people in the story,” Thuman said.

Despite its complex themes, Thuman says “The Secret Garden” is “absolutely” a family show; like the best family theater, it aims to entrance children while creating a resonant message for parents.

And aside from all that, it’s May, there’s a garden, and the show’s a musical. The magic combination.

“It’s as spring as they come,” she said.

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