May 15-17, 2013 proved to be a successful few days for Eastern Oregon University’s theater program. Their rendition of “The Secret Garden,” based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, was not only a musical success; it was also a showcase of first-rate acting.
The play, directed by Kenn Wheeler, starred Rick Mugrage as Archibald Craven; Marina Kennedy as Mary Lennox; Emily Smith as Lily Craven; Caitlin Burke as Martha; Joshua Gilman as Dr. Neville Craven; Larry Brian Moore Jr. as Dickon and Elijah Mugrage as Colin Cravin.
Wheeler not only directed the play, but also played the part of Ben Weatherstaff, the head gardener at Misselthwaite Manor. Wheeler said that acting and directing in the play was “a great experience, but also an amazing amount of work. The scene shifts almost killed us.”
For each scene change, all the actors had to move large, elaborate props—mounted on wheels—around the stage. It sounds a bit clunky, but with everything else going on in the play, one hardly noticed the scene changes. It was a fluid construction that gave the play a constant sense of motion; there never was a dull moment.
The actors who made up the cast of “the dreamers,” those who perished in India from the cholera epidemic, seemed to do most of the work in the scene changes, along with their dual role of singing and dancing during the eerie dream sequences.
Rick Mugrage’s portrayal of the lonely widower with a hump on his back, who finds himself saddled with his orphaned niece, was emotionally intense. This intensity carried effortlessly into his singing. Normally, I don’t care for musicals—I often find myself flinching and cringing at missed notes. However, Mugrage seemed to never miss a note.
Smith, who played the part of Archie’s dead wife who lovingly haunts him and the manor, was just as flawless in her performance. Its cliché, I know, but must be said: Smith has the voice of an angel, and I could listen to her all day.
Burke’s touching portrayal of the nurse who looks after the orphaned Mary Lennox, captivated me with its apparent sincerity. I could easily see Burke acting in more starring roles. Her voice holds a sweetness that is very appealing to the ear.
Gilman, who played the part of the greedy and selfish brother to Archibald Craven, had me wanting to jump out of my seat and attack him when his character almost took a swing at the young Mary Lennox. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who almost tackled the young actor at that point. Gilman created just the right amount of drama and hostility to induce scattered gasps from the audience.
But, it was Kennedy, the child-actress who played the part of Mary Lennox, who stole the show. I have never seen a child so self-possessed as to not only get up on a stage in front of a full audience, but also sing and act with such professionalism. Her acting and singing skills are only matched by her abundance of energy. Kennedy acted or sang in almost every scene.
Moore Jr. and Elijah Mugrage also did a fine job of acting and singing, though at times both seemed a bit stilted on their part. However, the younger Mugrage seems to be following in Rick’s footsteps if his strong singing voice is any indication of his future.
I am honestly ashamed to admit that I never expected to find the caliber of acting and singing that came from this show in La Grande, Ore.
Wheeler said, “In the end, the dedicated cast and crew pulled everything together for one of my most satisfying directing experiences.” Wheelers dream of directing the novel-adapted play by Marsha Norman may have taken 21 years to come to fruition, but I am of the opinion that it was well worth the wait. If you missed EOU’s “The Secret Garden,” well, shame on you. You missed one hell of a show.