THE CHALK GARDEN
I have to be honest and admit that the main reason I wanted to see this play was so that Mr. X and I could have a little pre-show dinner at an adorable Topanga Canyon Italian restaurant right near the theatre. We had discovered it last year on our way to Theatricum Botanicum to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which is playing in repertory this season, as well—here’s my review of last year’s performance: itsnotaboutme.tv/news/theatre-a-midsummer-nights-dream,) but we hadn’t had enough time to even take out a pizza that night. So, I’ve been dreaming about that eatery for a year now! (And yes, I do know that we can go there any time, but a drive to, and through, Topanga Canyon is what we consider to be a day trip!)
But I’m glad to have had that “carrot” to entice me in that direction because The Chalk Garden is a really good show, and I probably would have missed it otherwise. (This is just how good it is—the uber-shy Mr. X felt the need to congratulate several cast members when it was over. It would have to star Hugh Jackman or Adam Lambert to get me to do that!)
As many of you may know, I don’t find-out the subject matter of plays and films I’m about to see because I just want to experience them for myself, with no preconceived notions. But Mr. X looked-up The Chalk Garden the night before we were to see it, and told me, “You’re going to love this show because of who stars in the movie.” I was so upset that he said anything about it, and asked him to zip it before he ruined it for me. But the cat was out of the bag. Well, more of a kitten, because I had to now figure it out for myself. In the middle of the night, my crazy mind dug deep into my old movie knowledge, coupled with who Mr. X knew I’d want to see, and I deduced that he had to be talking about Hayley Mills. And, of course, I was correct. But I knew this was not one of my beloved Hayley Mills films, such as Pollyanna or The Parent Trap, because I had never chosen to see it. I knew there had to be a reason for that, so I assumed that there’s pain involved in the story.
I was correct about that, too, (of course,) but I’m happy to report that Theatricum Botanicum plays it more for laughs. It’s not really what I would call a happy story, but they make the journey fun. I believe this play has always been classified as a comedy, but there’s so much angst included in the storyline that I must declare it to be a dramedy. (But, also of course, there was not such a designation back in the ‘50s.) [Note: The genres listed on IMDB for the film version of The Chalk Garden are “drama” and “mystery,” which reminds me of seeing the play of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff years after I saw the tense, sad film. The stage show was actually sort-of a riot. And if that story can be made amusing, any play can! But The Chalk Garden was written as a comedy.]
There are too many threads of the story for my taste, and they don’t all pan-out in the end, but I did enjoy the ride. There are very many clever lines, which have held up so well in the over six decades since Enid Bagnold wrote this play. I couldn’t figure it all out, actually, but I believe that “Chalk Garden” is a metaphor for the grandmother’s dried-up life. Or something like that. (I’ll leave that analysis to other critics who delight in telling you the entire story, to show that they have viewing comprehension, without caring that they are most likely spoiling it for you.)
Mr. X said the story and the characters get better as the action goes along. I don’t know whether to attribute that to this particular production or to the original script, but I totally agree.
He was especially fond of the performance of Theatricum Botanicum Artistic Director, Ellen Geer, in the main role of the grandmother. He said that “she brings comedic elegance to both the character and production.” I concur with that assessment, and on a shallow note, I also love her nose; it looks a lot like my mother’s beautiful one, (which, obviously, I did not inherit.) She reminded me a bit of my fabulous grandmother, as well, which is always a good thing.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Carmen Flood as the teen-age granddaughter at the center of the scenario, especially knowing that she was trying to fill Hayley’s shoes, (in my eyes; she’s probably too young to even know who Ms. Mills is!) I could really hear how my idol must have delivered each line when Carmen was speaking. She’s adorable, and does a great job of portraying a teen-ager, when she’s a college senior right now. I can see her having a successful acting career in the future.
I had written a note that the casting of each and every actor in this show is excellent, especially in the case of the three generations of the females in the family. I found-out later that Willow Geer, who plays the daughter of the matriarch, is Ellen Geer’s daughter in real life! (After the curtain call, when I heard her tell a guest that she had gotten something “from my mother,” and pointed to Ellen, I thought, “What an actress—she’s still in character!” And then my post-show research set me straight.)
Speaking of Ellen, I have to give her some props for something admirable she did the night I saw the show. She seemed to have a bit of bother with an occasional line, but she made the stumbles seem like those of the character rather than of the actor. Great acting lesson for audience members in the biz.
I also appreciated the Rich Rose set design, which really does look like an old rich English woman’s sort-of-messy-but-once-regal country manor. But, in the company’s efforts to use the entire stage, I felt that the action was a bit too stretched-out. On the other hand, great use was made of the theatre’s outdoor setting since the house’s garden is so much a part of the discussion.
Here’s another bit of good news—none of the actors’ English accents bothered me! Stop the presses on that one. And I enjoyed the music that’s played occasionally between scenes. It’s very “movie.”
One tiny annoyance for me was that, despite sitting in the front row, and being known for my bionic hearing, I had a real problem understanding what everyone was saying, and got only about a half of the dialogue, because of the way too loud constant cricket concert. But there’s really nothing the outdoor theatre can do about that. (Maybe have the actors speak louder? Or ask the sound designer to help out? How about massive amounts of Raid?) (I’m only kidding about that last one—I would not kill crickets!!! I was just checking to see if you’re paying attention.)
To sum-up, The Chalk Garden is the best show of the four that I’ve seen at Theatricum Botanicum over the past two seasons. But oh those crickets!
Now, about the entire experience, I hadn’t been there yet this year, so I wasn’t sharply focused on how fun a summer trip to Theatricum Botanicum can be! But I was reminded pretty quickly as soon as we entered the premises. We bumped into a few good pals we never get to see, and we all sang the praises of this place. And I think Mr. X and I lucked-out to have not planned to picnic there that night because I don’t think there was an empty table or bench! A great time was being had by all.
I have to add that if you listen to me about nothing else with regard to this place, (other than to see the show, of course,) it’s to wear insect repellent. On every inch of skin that those little buggers can possibly get to. (There’s a kind-of tarp cover over the audience, which I hadn’t noticed last summer, which might possibly deter some of those bloodsuckers, and also come in handy for the daytime and early evening shows. So that’s a bonus.)
And, oh yes, in case you’re wondering about that Italian eatery, it was great, too. Adorable interior, delicious food, and lovely service. (I didn’t even feel like I was still in LA with them!) A stop at the neighboring General Store put the icing on the cake, (which is actually what we bought there, in case the fresh country air was going to make us hungry again at intermission.)
Lastly, even though I was one of the top thirty-one language students at my high school of over five thousand, all I remember of my Latin studies is “agricolae aquam portem,” (which means “the farmers carry water.” Think how often that comes in handy in life!) But, even so, I know that “Theatricum Botanicum” translates to “garden theatre.” So The Chalk Garden is the perfect piece for this location.
The Chalk Garden running (in repertory) through September 30, 2018
Theatricum Botanicum 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. 310-455-2322 www.theatricum.com