theater (reviews)

review: the chalk garden

[originally published on http://chicagocritic.com/ — no archive of past reviews]

The Chalk Garden

By Enid Bagnold
Directed by William Brown
A Northlight Theatre production
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
9501 Skokie Boulevard
Skokie, IL 60077

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 29, 2006

Bagnold’s Exploration of Family and Justice Elegantly and Unevenly Staged by Northlight

  • “A life without a room of one’s own is unbearable.”
  • “I never allow myself to think, I have another method.”
  • “Judges don’t age.  Time decorates them.”
  • “Truth doesn’t work in a court of law.”
  • “What a person listens to at trial is not his life but the shape and shadow of it, with the accident of truth taken out of it.”

Some theatrical genres challenge each subsequent generation.  Enid Bagnold’s splendidly crafted well-made play (and this term is used with no pejorative intent) is delightful to the ear.  Gems of lines emerge on balance from almost every character at regular intervals, and each scene has its own, delightful, curtain line.   This is a thinking man and woman’s drawing room comedy with explorations of mother daughter relations, class distinctions, and marvelous reflections on the law.  Described as a “comedy of manners” in the playbill or even “high comedy” by The Burns Mantle Yearbook of 1955-1956, to a contemporary audience the themes in THE CHALK GARDEN play more as drama with comedic elements.  And this struggle for genre is reflected in this production’s struggle for tone.

The story takes place in the drawing-room cum dining room of a manor house in Sussex, England “at the present day” when the play opened on Broadway in 1955 [followed by a run in London’s West End in 1956], and set in 1959 according to the current production’s playbill.  Laurel (Elizabeth Ledo) is 16, frustrated, living with her grandmother, and in need of yet another “companion” (the 16 year old’s version of a governess, we are left to assume).  Madrigal (the luminous Tracy Michelle Arnold) is the last applicant remaining in the current round of potential replacements.  Despite Madrigal’s own reservations with the child’s attitude and belligerence, she is taken with the challenge of cultivating the chalky soil of the manor’s gardens, mis-treated by the manor’s mistress and her aging servant’s mis-guided advice, and so takes on both jobs.

Through four scenes and two acts of the play we get to know the young Laurel, her grandmother Mrs. St. Maugham (Deanna Dunagan), Laurel’s mother and St. Maugham’s daughter Olivia (Karen Woditsch), the butler Maitland (Steve Hinger), and a nurse (Isabel Liss) who regularly appears with news of the ailing offstage aging household retainer.  We also meet the visiting luncheon guest and Maugham’s old friend Judge (Joel Hatch), who provides the fodder for the household’s final revelations.   Each of these strong performers commands his or her portion of the stage and helps to craft the world of the play.

The world is also beautifully created by the set designed by Matthew York, the lovely lighting by Charles Cooper, mood music and sound designed by Josh Schmidt (including some fabulous storm effects), and costumes by Rachel Anne Healy.

We should care about Laurel and her loneliness, and care about whether she will return to live with her suddenly present mother, whose absence we learn is complicated by her relationship with her mother of course.  We should care about the resolution (or lack thereof) of the relationship between Maugham and her daughter Olivia.  And we should focus on the faces of Madrigal and Maugham as they plan the future of their lives and of the chalk garden.   The women’s stories should rule this play, and in this production, they are undercut in several ways.

This beautifully crafted physical world is not in balance when it ought to be.  The tendency to go over the top with delivery of some lines and entire characterizations, while entertaining and charming in themselves, disrupts what plays otherwise as an exploration of family dynamics augmented (or resolution facilitated) courtesy of the arrival of a woman with a past. The undercutting nuances of the final revelations of the mysteries of Madrigal’s past do not resonate as movingly as they might when other points of the evening have been played at such a high comedic pitch.  When the butler Maitland gushes over the possibilities of a new with Madrigal just before the final resolving moments between Madrigal and Maugham, the play is not well served.  Toning down Maitland’s characterization alone would cost the performance some of its raucous laughs earlier in the play, but could contribute to a tighter production.  The overall tone for the entire evening might better serve the play if the response to the play’s humor were chuckles rather than guffaws.

Recommended

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 29, 2006)

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