Enid Bagnold's 'Chalk Garden' takes root at Ghent Playhouse

From left, Elisheva Malfatto as Laurel; Wendy Power Spielmann as Mrs. St. Maugham; and Sally McCarthy as Miss Madrigal in the Ghent Playhouse production of Enid Bagnold's"The Chalk Garden," running Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons tonight through Feb.16.

GHENT, N.Y. — In 1955, two decades after the success of her novel "National Velvet," British author, playwright and socialite Enid Bagnold penned her play "The Chalk Garden." Both works went on to became successful Hollywood films.

"The Chalk Garden" begins a three-weekend run Friday at Ghent Playhouse in a production directed by the community theater's artistic director, Cathy Lee-Visscher. There's an open seating preview at 8 tonight.

In the eponymous chalk garden of an English country manor, nothing will grow. When eccentric dowager Mrs. St. Maugham hires mysterious Miss Madrigal to manage her grandchild Laurel, a cunning, unruly teenager in her care, successful cultivation finally seems possible — both in the soil and beyond.

The setting is a vintage drawing room, with upholstered sofa, shelves of knick-knacks and photographs, cut flowers in a vase on a table waiting for tea.

On this set, Lee-Visscher discussed the play alongside three principal actors: Sally McCarthy as enigmatic Miss Madrigal; Wendy Power Spielmann as indomitable Mrs. St. Maugham; and Elisheva Malfatto as wild child Laurel.

The psychological drama unfolds over two months. After living with St. Maugham for four years, 16-year-old Laurel is too much to handle, and her grandmother seeks help. An unseen butler ailing upstairs exerts undue influence over the household.

"Miss Madrigal comes with no references but is hired because she expresses an interest in gardens." Lee-Visscher explained.

"She obviously has a past," McCarthy said, "but is private and strong."

To Spielmann, St. Maugham is "an eccentric, lonely woman, angry and mean-spirited.

"She encourages her granddaughter to be mischievous, and deep down thinks she loves her; but there is sadness that she couldn't work it out with her own daughter."

Malfatto, 21, lives in neighboring Chatham. "I'd seen some [Playhouse] shows, and a few years ago started getting more into acting." In high school she performed in Shakespeare & Company's Fall Festival. "It was awesome," she said.

Following a small role last summer in Ghent's "Don Juan," Malfatto was drawn to the part of Laurel.

"The character just called out to me," she said. "Like her grandmother, she's quite eccentric; she's smart, witty and interesting. She acts out and is constantly looking for attention, setting fires and concocting lies. She's weirdly brilliant but misguided."

In those days, teenagers endured a harsh transition between childhood and marriage, Malfatto added.

"I love being in a play with the younger generation," Spielmann said, "because I refuse to be old."

"I have friends in their 90s who do theater, and friends in their 20s," Lee-Visscher said. "The arts keeps you young."

Twenty-five years ago, Virginia-born singer McCarthy "was pulled into acting in my first real play — and fell in love with it." She and Lee-Visscher performed together often at Ghent. At first doing only musicals, McCarthy broadened her horizons, and for a time ran her own company. A stalwart of the annual cross-dressing Panto holiday show, now in its 20th season, this past year she acted in five plays, from Ghent to Great Barrington.

"There are some wonderful middle-aged women's parts I've fallen into," she said. "But this is my home."

"'The Chalk Garden' is a very literary, beautifully written play," she added.

"It's so interesting the way everything unfolds," Lee-Visscher said. "I'd never done a period piece, and got really intrigued by this. It's so layered — a lot of suspense, a lot of tension, but also very touching and poignant in parts. And there's humor."

Lee-Visscher discovered theater in college, cast in the lead on her first audition, and switched her journalism major to acting. Community theater more than satisfies her creative urges.

She has been with Ghent — formerly Columbia Civic Players — "since day one" in 1975, directing plays for more than 40 years. She's been Ghent's artistic director since 2010. "I look for a well-rounded season," she said, "a drama, a comedy, a musical, the Panto, and something else like a farce."

The small, sufficient theater draws audiences both local and from the Berkshires, with productions whose casts range from chamber-sized to more than two dozen actors, many of whom do double duty behind the scenes.

Some directors walk away once the play opens, Spielmann said, "but Cathy is always there for every single performance. And that means a lot to someone in community theater, because it means you're still striving."

With professional theater prices soaring, community theater "is very accessible and convenient," McCarthy said. "It's wonderful that people get up in front of their neighbors and friends and take it seriously. They want to do their best."

"I want my actors to shine," said Lee-Visscher. "We've made a lot of strides in the 45 years we've been around."