Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
In these dog days of winter, the thought of a spring flower’s bloom is a welcome one.
There are blooms aplenty in The Secret Garden, which has just taken root at Young People’s Theatre (YPT). The story centres on 10-year-old Mary Lennox, a recently orphaned girl who must emigrate from India to Yorkshire, England. While wandering her new home, she discovers a secluded, abandoned garden, which leads her to find secrets within the house as well.
This play is the second of two YPT productions this season with stories that might already be familiar to audiences. Last fall, YPT presented Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as a “chamber production”, directed by Artistic Director Allen MacInnis. The production struck such a deep chord with audiences that it was extended past its scheduled run. Mr MacInnis has also directed this reimagined production of The Secret Garden, Paul Ledoux‘s adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s classic novel, which was first staged as a commission for YPT in 1991. This revival is likely to garner similar success to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — and for the same reason: MacInnis’ reinterpretation of it, once again starting with a diverse ensemble.
While the play is set in the Edwardian period of the original novel, the casting and themes of this production clearly reflect the play’s contemporary audiences. “YPT continuously does a wonderful job of creating an onstage cast that reflects the multiculturalism of our current society,” observes Natalia Gracious, who plays Mary Lennox and is a YPT resident artist educator and RBC Emerging Artist honoree. “One thing that is especially unique in this production is the casting of Mary and Colin,” she notes. “In our version of the play, they are half Indian, whereas they are usually both British.”
Jake Runeckles plays Mary’s cousin Colin Craven, an apparent invalid who lives in imposed reclusion. Echoing Ms Gracious’ sentiments, he stresses the lack of precedent for this casting: “In the book, and in all previous tellings of this story, Mary and Colin are white… [whereas here] both characters are brown.” Both characters now have Indian mothers (the deceased sisters Rose and Lily) – an inventive casting choice that is supported by the fact that Mary originally comes from India to live in Yorkshire. Mr. Runeckles is unambiguous in his enthusiasm, calling it a “joy to be part of a production that features Indian-Canadians in the lead roles. And I am excited for 1st and 2nd generation Canadian children to see themselves on the stage as a result.”
The themes of family, friendship, love, loss, neglect, and renewal are at the core of this story. Because of its richness, the story has been adapted to stage and screen in multiple forms, with a popularity that hasn’t withered since the novel’s publication in 1911. (In fact, it was just announced that a revival of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s musical version will open the 2018–2019 Broadway season.) As an actor, Ms Gracious in no stranger to the world of neglected and underestimated orphans. She played Pepper, an inmate in Miss Hannigan’s orphanage in YPT’s 2013 production of the musical Annie. Her turn as Mary is notably different: where Annie’s indomitable pluck in the face of cruelty is both unnerving and inspiring, Mary lacks Annie’s relentlessly sunny demeanor. Instead, Mary seems spoiled, contrary, and insistent on getting her own way. Ms Gracious describes her as “at first a difficult child, who is dealing with a great loss and trying to adjust to new surroundings” after her parents and the entire household of servants perish in a cholera outbreak, and she is sent to Yorkshire to live in a manor house with her only known relative, Archibald Craven (played by Simon Bracken), a widower uncle whom she has never met.
The sudden loss of every person Mary has ever known upends her world. The upheaval of emigration (whether the result of tragedy or necessity) and the need to adjust to a new environment will resonate widely. “Many children know what it is like to be lonely, even if they haven’t experienced death in the way that Mary has. And many people act out when they are going through difficult times,” Ms Gracious stresses. Despite Mary’s difficult nature, she is confident that audiences will find her an “extremely relatable character.” Ms Gracious’ approach in playing Mary has been to seek to understand what Mary has gone through, and how it has affected her: “I hope audiences will empathize with Mary’s sense of loss and loneliness, but also enjoy the hope and happiness that she comes to have.”
Her cousin experiences different struggles. He is a “weak, bedridden boy who has been left untended and unloved for most of his life,” explains Mr Runeckles. “Them that is unwanted scarce ever thrives,” he quotes, evoking the story’s suggestion that children who believe they are unwanted become dispirited and feeble. Colin has been raised in isolation, with everyone assuming that he is a helpless invalid. Colin and Mary are alike in their loneliness – and the story warns of the dangers of abandonment. Mr Runckles sees Mary and Colin as neglected yet resilient children who must “learn to take care of each other and rise above their circumstances” to find happiness. They are related — yet strangers — and Mary is also the first Indian girl Colin has ever seen. So he must navigate a new relationship as well as a new culture – an acclimatization that multicultural Toronto audiences will recognize and relate to. “Throughout the play, Mary and Colin have times when they are completely antagonistic and other times when they are the best of friends,” says Ms Gracious. “Both characters are mysterious to one another, so there are lots of discoveries to be made,” Mr Runeckles adds. “They are also used to getting their way, so their relationship involves learning how to compromise. I think the audience will connect with the way these characters – without role models – learn how to love in their own ways.”
The story underscores the profound influence of adults on children, whether they are present or not. “The adults in the show serve a few different purposes,” says Ms Gracious (though she studiously withholds details so as not to spoil the plot). She offers simply that “some of them are difficult and scary, but in the end, they also end up being allies.” Mr Runeckles sees them as “real people all with their own desires and hardships. Some are parents. And when they get too caught up in their own struggles, they fail to acknowledge and nurture the young people around them. Perhaps the greatest obstacles for Colin and Mary are their histories with their parents, which they navigate throughout the play.” Ms Gracious adds that, “interestingly, the adults who are not actually seen in the show (Mary’s parents and Colin’s mom), actually have a tremendous impact on the children.”
Asked for final thoughts about the production, Ms Gracious and Mr Runeckles are unanimous in their praise for the show’s “phenomenal” sound, costume and set designs. “The set design is extremely unique,” Ms Gracious hints. “I don’t want to give anything away, but I find it beautiful and brilliantly thought out.” Mr Runeckles echoes this praise, enthusing, “I can’t say enough about it. Our designers and production team are incredible.” I don’t want to give anything away either, so I’ll just note that Teresa Przbylski’s striking set is both ingenious and functional. It is a potent reminder of the central metaphor of the garden, a literary symbol of regeneration and healing. Both Dickon’s and gardener Ben’s innate skill to make things grow demonstrates how a faithful investment of care and commitment will yield a harvest. And as the story makes clear, this axiom applies to friendship and individual growth, as much as to gardening.
YPT’s The Secret Garden is a poignant reminder that what is true for fruit and flowers is also true for the spirit. Mr MacInnis’ considered staging of this play seems timely. With the increasing focus on adolescent mental health and well-being, the themes will ring true for young people. In fact, the story’s perennial messages of the importance of mindfulness, belonging and nurturing one’s emotional health are more pertinent than ever. “I am so grateful [to] YPT for inviting me to tell this story. This is a dream come true,” Mr Renuckles enthuses. “I just wanted to add how happy I am to be a part of that!” agrees Ms Gracious.
Blooming from now until the end of March break, this powerful and positive story promises rich characters, resonant casting, a visual feast and real food for thought.
More than enough reasons to visit The Secret Garden at YPT.
News You Can Use
What: The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett; adapted for the stage by Paul Ledoux; directed by Allen MacInnis
Who: Audiences 6 years of age (grade 1) and older
When: On stage until March 17, 2018; running time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Young People’s Theatre, Mainstage, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON
Information and Tickets: YoungPeoplesTheatre.ca
Explore and Learn: Study Guide
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya