The Playcrafters Barn Theatre's The Secret Garden seems, to me, to be the quintessential type of production to grace its stage: a classic story told with community-theatre charm, which director Donna Weeks' staging has in spades. Through the show's almost perfect casting and a less-is-more approach in her set design, Weeks manages to create some magic.
My biggest curiosity (and concern) about Weeks' production was in how she would handle the garden itself. In my mind, the focal location of original book author Frances Hodges Burnett's much-loved story needs to be grand once it is restored by the young Mary Lennox (played here by Emma Terronez), but can all too easily be overdone with too much employment of plastic flowers. Weeks' secret garden, instead, is minimalist in its appearance, with bits of color gradually appearing on a small stone wall - one constructed with a door on a wheeled platform that is routinely spun 180 degrees, depending on whether the characters are inside or outside the garden. (Weeks also incorporates a clever device in which her actors, usually Terronez, will open the door, start to enter, and then freeze as stage hands spin the platform to let the audience into the garden with her.) Other than the flowers added to the wall, most of the garden's full splendor is left to the imagination.
Also featured on the stage are a hinged wall just big enough for a fireplace and a tapestry hanging over it - this piece unfolds to represent Mary's room in her uncle's home, where she's sent to live after the death of her parents - and another stone wall on a wheeled platform that spins to reveal a king-sized bed (where Jack Sellers' Colin Craven is confined), also with a tapestry hanging over it. The tapestries are of particular interest, as without them, I don't think there would be a sense of the scope of the Craven mansion. Colin's bed is also flanked by yet another, smaller wheeled platform bearing a painting of Colin's deceased mother, the original caretaker of the secret garden.
Of course, the heart of Hodges Burnett's tale - with Playcrafters' version adapted by Pamela Sterling - lies in the children at its center: Mary, Colin, and Dickon Sowerby (Ben Klocke), a boy who wanders the moors of Yorkshire, England and knows a thing or two about flora and fauna. Terronez, who was remarkable as Helen Keller in Playcrafters' The Miracle Worker last year, proves no less talented here. Her initially condescending, entitled young woman gradually softens into a child filled with wonder and innocence, although one who's ever-confident and persistent. Terronez has a tendency to pause before speaking some lines - not as if she's trying to remember them, but as if her character is considering what to say, or what was said to her, as a mindful child would.
Sellers, whose witty sarcasm and comedic style could've singlehandedly carried the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre's 100 Lunches last year, balances being both spoiled and charismatic so that while you know he's a brat - barking orders to Mary, the servants, and his doctor - you'd also want to be part of Colin's inner circle of friends because of his cool confidence. In contrast, Klocke, who was delightful as Ralphie in last year's A Christmas Story: The Musical at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, seems the embodiment of joy and happiness, with a smile on his lips and in his eyes that seems rooted in his soul. The most magic created in this Secret Garden occurs when Terronez, Sellers, and Klocke share it together, exuding the glee of children's friendship and absence of malice.
The same cannot be said of Patti Flaherty's dour, insincere head housekeeper Mrs. Medlock, but the character's unpleasantries, harsh treatment of the children, and obvious obsequiousness are delivered in a manner that elicits laughter. As Archibald Craven, the master of the house, Tyler Henning's pensiveness and lack of cheer after the loss of his wife are apparent in his calculated, thoughtful deliveries. Bill Peiffer's Ben Weatherstaff, the gardener, and Krissy Wheeler's Martha, a maidservant, are also worth noting for their amicable natures and nuanced performances.
Another bit of enchantment Weeks creates is in the robin that guides Mary to the garden. The bird is represented by a hand puppet, which Katie Moore and Noah Kelly - who also serve as poised narrators - give personality to as they make it fly and sing to Mary and her friends (aided by Laura Crumbleholme's flute accompaniment). Such small touches made Friday's performance of the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's The Secret Garden a true delight.
The Secret Garden runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline) through March 23, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 or visiting Playcrafters.com.