The Irvine Valley Theatrefaire for Children's production of Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" is awkwardly staged and lengthy, but a shining performance by the play's young lead almost makes it work.
Thomas W. Olsen's adaptation retains the moody flavor of the turn-of-the-century classic story about dark, brooding Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire moors and the orphaned girl who comes to live there. She never sees her uncle, is treated sternly by a formidable housekeeper and hears mysterious crying in the night.
It's an ambitious project to mount on Theatrefaire's tiny stage, and director Charisse Kennard's staging lacks needed simplicity.
Many scene changes mean that sets must be changed with little room to maneuver. Wally Huntoon's flimsy painted stone walls get pushed about at a dizzy clip and the lights go down each time. They don't always come back up quickly, making it difficult to keep track of what time of day it's supposed to be. (Dean Howlett and Laurie Jackson did the lighting.)
It's disorienting, too, to see the unsympathetic characters who are supposed to be occupied elsewhere enter silently to shift the scenery. Taped "mood" music is an unfortunate and unnecessary choice--it's muffled and erratic and makes the actors difficult to understand. Thankfully, it's used sparingly.
A small puzzler: Susan Damiene who plays stern Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper, also designed the costumes. She's done quite well by everyone but herself. An ill-fitting, coarse shirtwaist gives her an alarmingly unkempt appearance.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Elizabeth Barrutia gives a smashing performance as the play's young heroine, Mary Lennox. Lonely, covering it up with bravado, Mary seems indeed to be "as nasty a piece of goods" as Mrs. Medlock ever saw.
Barrutia has a wonderful time with tantrums, but she's always in control. A shouting match with Mary's sickly, spoiled, equally lonely cousin is done with great finesse. Barrutia also manages to discard her crustiness gracefully, and when she sings a lullaby to her cousin, holding his hand, the moment is real.
She's ably supported by several others. Laura Waldrip plays the friendly young servant girl Martha with warmth and surprising delicacy. Martin Noyes, despite an accent strongly reminiscent of Long John Silver, is endearing as Martha's young brother.
Tiny Saul Wheeler, as the invalid cousin who learns to enjoy life, is less convincing in his quiet moments but able to give a dressing down to the servants that is nothing short of masterful.
The smaller roles of gardener and nurse, played respectively by Sean Michael Casey and Anna Frias, are equally well-served.
The other adults in the cast don't fare so well. Lee A. Waddell as Mr. Pitcher and Damiene are cardboard villains, while Clint Richards as Mary's tortured uncle and Jaimes Palacio as the doctor are too bland.
There is quality here, but cramped staging and less than convincing performances make for a long two hours. (There's one 15-minute intermission.)
Performances continue through this weekend at Irvine Valley College. Shows are Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.