By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In an urban area like Dallas-Fort Worth, you'll often find professionally and/or academically trained stage artists who decline to become members of Actors Equity: There are numerous talented and audacious small and midsize troupes that simply lack the resources to hire more than one (or any) Equity actors, and so folks who want to stay put and work in the broadcast industry here oftentimes find their prospects limited by union membership. That makes the line between "community" and "professional" theater sometimes very smudgy indeed. For instance, Theatre Arlington has operated under the "community" moniker for 28 years now, and its play selection often suggests this; note Catch Me If You Can and No Sex, Please, We're British coming up this summer. But its current production, the North Texas premiere of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon's musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, really knocked me over with the artistry and authority of its design and performances. All the problems with this fleet-footed and visually diverse (on a small scale, thanks to designers Jorge Lopez-Aguado, Ana Pettit and Dusty and Drenda Lewis) production lie with the authors. Twenty-eight songs are just too many to develop from a children's book of such narrative spareness (but, admittedly, psychosexual depths).
I won't belabor the already overdiscussed psychoanalytic overtones of Burnett's tale being a parable about adolescence, and refreshingly, director B.J. Cleveland doesn't either. He lets us adults with dirty minds enjoy a sexuality primer that is also a family spectacle. Mary (Madeleine Rady) invades and overturns the frigid Misselthwaite Manor household of her lonely uncle, Archibald (Stan Graner), who is grieving over the death-during-childbirth of his wife, Lily (Jennifer Ducate Lehman). Mary herself lost both parents to cholera while living in India; Theatre Arlington's show gorgeously intermingles the child's Indian past and English present, and the ghosts that dwell in both. The technical decision to put microphones on each actor resulted in occasional distortion but was worth it to have Lehman as Lily sing in an electronically processed, ethereal voice. Rady and Ross Neuenfeldt as Colin, Archibald's bedridden and obstinate son, perform with a slightly wicked precociousness straight out of Roald Dahl; Colin is wont to declare, "I'm dying!" less as a lament and more as a boast, while Mary spins into a demon-possessed dervish fit to avoid being shipped out of Misselthwaite. These two small actors are very big ingredients in an elaborate musical ensemble.
The Secret Garden runs through May 20 at Theatre Arlington, 305 Main St., Arlington. Call (817) 261-9628.