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THEATER: Sparse Harvest

"The Secret Garden" at Dogwood Dell delivers too much drear, too little life.


To those who slipped away early, I can report that things got better in the second act. A pleasant breeze cooled the air a bit. The show's technical crew managed to rein in the crackles and flickers. And the tone of the show … well, um, did I mention the breeze?

To be fair, the play picks up steam many times in the later scenes, but each time is thwarted by an oppressive preoccupation with death and mourning. "Garden" tells the story of Mary Lennox (Lucy Dacus), a young British girl whose entire family perishes in a breakout of cholera in colonial India circa 1906. She is sent to live with her uncle Archibald (Tony Sharpenstein) in a stuffy manor house in central England. Still grieving 10 years after his wife, Lily (Lisa Kotula), has died, "Archie" has no interest in this spoiled and spirited girl who invades his house, vexes the servants and becomes determined to gain entry to the hidden garden that Lily once tended.

By the second act, Mary has discovered Colin (Sean Dunavant, alternating with Jeremy Roscher), Archie's sickly and sequestered son, who insists he is going to die any minute. With the help of Martha the maid (Tamara Hubbard) and her brother, Dickon (Brian E. Vaughan), Mary cultivates the secret garden as well as Colin's health, a process that lends some life to the proceedings near the end.

The young Ms. Dacus (who alternates in the role with Makenzie Mercer) handles her considerable responsibilities admirably, tossing off a few sprightly duets with Hubbard and Vaughan. These scenes sparkle with energy, but are invariably countered by a gloomy rumination from Sharpenstein, a high-quality performer who is trapped within maudlin songs for most of this show.

While the score is well-rendered by a robust orchestra led by musical director Brian Lucas, few of the numbers are noteworthy or memorable. The most powerful voice in the cast belongs to Kotula, and her ghostly presence adds an ethereal operatic element to the proceedings. But not everyone onstage has comparable vocal gifts, making a muddle of some of the duets and quartets.

The production, an all-volunteer effort, is nicely designed with Thomas Hammond's period costumes being a particular standout. The two-tiered set serves the action well, and lighting designer Joe Doran deserves mention for bathing the ghosts and memories that populate the play with an eerie red glow. Unfortunately, the frequent appearance of this glow only underscores how much more death there is than life in this show. S

"The Secret Garden" continues at Dogwood Dell Amphitheatre in Byrd Park at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 11 to 13. The show is free.

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