'Chalk Garden' finds infertile soil at Ghent Playhouse

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GHENT, N.Y. — Laurel, the 16-year-old girl around whom the action essentially turns in Enid Bagnold's "The Chalk Garden" — which is being given a frustratingly uneven production at Ghent Playhouse — is a fabulist. For her, fiction is truth. She claims that her father was so despondent when his wife, Olivia, Laurel's mother, ran off with her lover that he shot himself to death in front of her. Laurel also claims to have been attacked by a man in Hyde Park shortly before her mother's marriage to her lover. Then truth of both those claims turns out to be quite something else.

Laurel has been living with her grandmother, Mrs. St. Maugham, in the elderly woman's Sussex manor house. She runs wild — shrieking at odd intervals; lighting bonfires in the garden as she threatens to burn her grandmother's house to the ground; chasing off one governess after another. She is a handful. The judgmental Mrs. St. Maugham has had no more success in supplying the love and permanence Laurel needs than she has found the formula for making flowers grow in the infertile soil of the chalk garden in her backyard.

Enter Miss Madrigal, the latest in a line of applicants for the job of governess; a woman with a deep secret of her own who comes to be interviewed by St. Maugham without experience or references. But rather than be intimidated by Laurel, Madrigal finds in her first meeting with her a kind of kinship that takes Madrigal back to her youth. Her apparent knowledge of gardening is a big selling point with St. Maugham, who hires her.

The action plays out over the course of a difficult two months, during which Laurel will do her best to expose what Miss Madrigal is keeping hidden abut her past; Madrigal will do her best to reach accommodation with Mrs. St. Maugham and to break through to Laurel; Mrs. St. Maugham's estranged, now pregnant thirtysomething daughter, Olivia, will turn up to take custody of Laurel; and Madrigal will be pushed to the edge of exposure when St. Maugham invites a judge for lunch in an attempt to solicit his advice in her determined effort to prevent Olivia from taking Laurel away with her.

First produced on Broadway in 1955 and popularized in a 1964 film starring Deborah Kerr as Miss Madrigal, Hayley Mills as Laurel and Edith Evans as Mrs. St. Maugham, "The Chalk Garden" is the kind of play one hardly sees these days — a well-made, orderly, subtle play whose style depends far less on melodrama and heightened reality that it does on wit, subtlety, passion, civility as each of her characters, acting out of the best, if occasionally misguided, intentions set about to make things right.

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Bagnold charts a delicate balance between wry wit and understatement on the one hand and darker psychological elements on the other. The singular achievement of director Cathy Lee-Vischer's production is its ability to nestle between those elements. The result is an amorphous, emotionally unanchored production that misses most of the opportunities Bagnold offers.

Director Cathy Lee-Vischer's unevenly paced production gains immeasurably from Sally McCarthy's artfully crafted portrayal of Miss Madrigal; a performance that is as revealing and poignant as much for what McCarthy's Madrigal keeps to herself as what she does reveal. McCarthy's Madrigal spends a great deal of time sitting, listening, absorbing what is going on around her. There is never a moment in which McCarthy's Madrigal is not fully engaged. McCarthy deserves better than she gets, especially from Wendy Spielmann's oddly crafted Mrs. St. Maugham. The words are there but the emotional clarity is not. Especially with the wig she sports, Spielmann's Mrs. St. Maugham registers more as a dotty old woman than a strong, fiercely judgmental, controlling woman who is losing sway over her environment.

Lee-Vischer is a skilled, persuasive actress, no less so than in her two scenes as Olivia, a role she assumed, she writes in her program bio, as a result of an unexpected emergency involving the actress originally cast in the part. But for all the conviction and credibility with which Lee-Vischer delivers her lines, there is an unfortunate physical disconnect. Lee-Vischer is older than the character she plays. Her wig and the pregnancy pillow she wears under her suit challenge one's willing suspension of disbelief.

Elisheva Malfatto is something of a one-note presence as Laurel; Steve King brings a Nigel Bruce-as-Dr. Watson cuddly feeling to his role as Maitland, a household manservant who knows the truth behind Laurel's inventions and finds a commonality with Miss Madrigal; and George Filieau is credible as The Judge.

Sam Reilly has provided a solid, detailed, revealing (if spottily lit by Joe Sicotte) setting that offers a fertile environment for this production. Too bad that, on the whole, the human seedlings within that environment rarely reach full flowering.


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