Tim Bennett's set -- a sitting room in an English manor house, dappled with gorgeous pink light and a dozen vases of cut flowers, opening out onto a rose-strewn garden -- is so inviting that I wanted to walk up on stage and move in. That's the only positive thing I have to say about the Caldwell Theatre Company's production of The Chalk Garden, a play so musty and shallow that it hardly deserves reviving at all, much less with the finesse this group gives it. Playwright Enid Bagnold is probably smiling down from heaven, but anyone looking for an honest or engaging drama will be disappointed.
When I asked the man sitting next to me what he thought of the show, he replied, "It's a classic," as if that were reason enough to like it. Michael Hall, who directed this production, apparently would agree. Perhaps there was a time when this story about a girl and her Victorian grandmother might have been considered charming; in 1951, the year the play was published, the repressive mores it embraces were still entrenched. A success for Bagnold, a minor British playwright who also wrote the novel National Velvet, the work became a Hayley Mills vehicle when it was turned into a movie in 1964. But I doubt that even the impetuous Mills could make us take it seriously today. Like most melodramas that hinge on a third-act revelation, The Chalk Garden holds no surprise that the average audience member can't guess in Act One.
At the center of the play, set before World War I, is 16-year-old Laurel, an unruly tomboy who lives in Sussex with her grandparents. She's a spirited girl who likes to run around shrieking in the garden and has an unhealthy interest in fire. The character with the Big Secret is one Miss Madrigal, a dour woman who answers an advertisement for a governess for Laurel. She accepts the job with the understanding that she will also tend the garden, taking over from Laurel's bedridden grandfather, who remains upstairs, unseen, throughout the play. Miss Madrigal has (insert organ music here) a Mysterious Past. Laurel, like us, deduces pretty quickly that Madrigal is not the maiden lady she claims to be, though Bagnold keeps her other characters in the dark. By the time "the Judge," a family friend, appears in Act Three to unveil the secret, the audience has little stake in finding out Miss Madrigal's truths. After all, the governess has already told us that she comes from a noble family whose members served in the East India Company rather than from your ordinary governess stock. And she's made at least one sinister allusion to learning how to garden in an unconventional setting -- say, a prison.
As you've surely figured out by now, Miss Madrigal is a walking metaphor, a person sent from the outside world to fix things in Laurel's home and garden. Few modern viewers, however, will cotton to Bagnold's conviction that Laurel, for her own good, must leave her grandmother's house and go off with her mother. At age three, when her father died, Laurel was deserted by her mother and sent to live with her grandparents. Now the girl's mother, Olivia, has turned up, several months pregnant by her second husband, hoping to win back Laurel's affections. As the show progresses, Bagnold wants us to root for Laurel's realization that it's time for a change.
What's wrong with that? Well, for one thing, Laurel's grandmother is a much more interesting individual than Laurel's mother, whose main characteristic is that she dresses in beige. Grandmother, on the other hand, is a congenial and absent-minded goofball. She not only hires Miss Madrigal despite her bizarre lack of references but also employs the ex-convict Maitland, a combination butler, parlor maid, garden assistant, cook, and chauffeur, allowing him a full range of freedoms well beyond those of the average Edwardian household help. She's open to gardening advice from Miss Madrigal, realizing that the woman is the only person in Sussex who seems to know how to grow anything in its chalky soil. (I'm not going to touch on the pitifully obvious growth, tree, and madrigal symbolism embedded in the play's design.)
The Chalk Garden's one endearing quality lies in the way it occasionally mixes melodrama with offbeat drawing room antics. Early in Act One, Maitland (Marcus Weiss) discovers his employer's dentures wrapped in a tissue and delivers them to her in the garden, as if that were the most ordinary thing on earth. Later they quibble about table-setting -- where the spoon goes in relation to the knife. Maitland insists that Grandmother has reversed herself, and she probably has. She's a woman with more interesting things to think about than place settings. To those of us raised after the '50s, Grandmother presents the very model of a liberated maternal force, not a person who, as the playwright suggests, will corrupt the young Laurel and possibly even let her fall into a life of crime.
The wonderful Marcia Mahon plays the grandmother in this production, a fact that highlights one of the play's most perplexing aspects: Why would anyone want to leave her, even to run off with that nice Pat Nesbit, who plays the mom? Mahon more than embodies the free spirit with which Bagnold seems to be wrestling, and her acting infuses an otherwise colorless play with subtleties that aren't in the script. I'd give all two and a half hours of Bagnold's moldy preachiness for the five seconds Mahon takes to wave her hand suggestively as she says the word innuendo, just after discovering that Madrigal and the Judge have gasp! met before.
Alas, the dialogue isn't the only artificial component of The Chalk Garden. Although Bennett's set makes a luscious first impression, it, too, has a serious problem: Why is the sitting room full of healthy-looking flowers before Madrigal works her magic on the garden? These chlorophyll-laden props make it hard to believe that the garden and all it symbolizes need better tending. Nonetheless the Caldwell cast -- which also includes the deft John Felix as the Judge, Angie Radosh as the Nurse, and Harriet Oser and Joy Johnson as applicants competing for the governess job that eventually goes to Jacqueline Knapp's Miss Madrigal -- disports itself so elegantly that it should be in good shape when a better melodrama comes its way. Here's hoping the next revival is along the lines of An Inspector Calls, the 1946 chestnut that the company made relevant a few years ago with a fantastic stage design and a strong directorial vision. In the case of The Chalk Garden, why waste great talent on trivia?
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