Don’t let the slightly unoriginal set for Center Stage’s “The Secret Garden”—essentially, an enormous open book, which winks at the adapted play’s roots in the 1911 children’s novel of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnette—turn you off. Any skepticism I felt quickly evaporated as the play’s energetic first scene began: We meet our heroine, the recently orphaned 10-year-old Mary Lennox who is forced out of her home in India to live with an uncle in dreary Yorkshire. (At this point, if you’re reminding yourself “right this is the other little English girl orphaned story,” you’re not alone. No, this is not “The Little Princess,” but Hodgson Burnette wrote both books. This is the orphan-plus-garden love story—its 1991 Broadway debut saw Daisy Eagan as Mary become the youngest actress ever to win a Tony.)
A tough role to pull off at a young age—it involves losing your parents, living with a reclusive, widowed uncle and his bratty son, nearly being forced into a scary school and worse. This production’s Mary, Emily Cohn, gives a riveting performance. She held my attention from the very beginning. I empathized and forgot it was a play in moments.
The production’s large 17-member cast carries their weight. A few—namely the uncle’s manipulative brother and the older gardener, Ben—feel under-explored, but perhaps that’s because Hodgson Burnett wrote them that way. Regardless, this story remains one about the power of outlook and imagination. Dickon, the younger gardener, conveys this theme when he asks Mary, “Are you interested in flying?” in the first act. And something Colin, the bratty son, demonstrates when he realizes he was only “sick” because his greedy and manipulative uncle told him so.
From the first note to the last bow, this show is an engaging whimsical ride. Are you interested in flying?
“The Secret Garden” at Center Stage runs through Nov. 29.