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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Message Shines in Acacia Theatre’s ‘Secret Garden’

Theater Review

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The Secret Garden has been a beloved classic ever since it debuted as a serial in a magazine a century ago. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tale of Mary, an unhappy British girl sent to live with her reclusive, widower uncle after her parents die, has inspired readers and audiences of all ages. Its themes include the sudden nature of death and the restorative powers of life.

It’s heavy material for a children’s book or, in this case, a staged play, which Acacia Theatre Company opened last weekend. Fortunately, the play’s message came through despite unevenness in the production’s sound quality and acting.

Audio problems plagued the opening night performance from the start, as some actors were difficult to hear while others, like the young, talented actress playing Mary (Alison Pogorelc), couldn’t be understood given the loud volume. Add some opening night jitters and it took a while before the cast settled into this story of Mary finding happiness in life through the “secret garden.”

Pogorelc, already experienced on other Milwaukee stages, did a fine job of transforming the pouty, unhappy Mary into a child full of life. Courtney Harding’s portrayal of the naive maid Martha helped to provide stability to the supporting cast, as did Mike D. DeLong’s good-hearted gardener, Ben Weatherstaff. As Martha’s brother, the gardener Dickon, Ethan York was a perfect balance of genteel innocence and worldly ways.

The set relied on the audience’s imagination, given the minimal use of vines and gray brick walls. It required a leap of faith on the part of the audience to picture what the actors were seeing and experiencing in the secret garden.

Director Elaine Rewolinski added some nice touches, including an opening scene in which all of the actors formed a tree, as well as live actors placed inside picture frames in the gloomy manor.

Acacia Theatre’s The Secret Garden runs through March 7 in the Todd Wehr Auditorium at Concordia University.

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