“The Chalk Garden” at The Ghent Playhouse is a Satisfying Story of a Woman with a Past
The Ghent Playhouse is presenting “The Chalk Garden,” a play by Enid Bagnold which had many Tony nominations when it bowed on Broadway in 1955 and a starry movie adaptation with Deborah Kerr and Hayley Mills in 1964. It concerns Mrs. St. Maugham (solid Wendy Spielmann) and her search for a nanny for her 16-year-old granddaughter Laurel (terrific Elisheva Malfatto) when they find Miss Madrigal (indispensable Sally McCarthy) who applies for the job but can provide no references. She does have a working knowledge of the problematic lime and chalk garden of this Sussex manor which has a hard time growing anything. She is hired and the two engage in a combative relationship with Laurel agitating to discover Madrigal’s hidden past. Laurel’s mother, the oft-married, pregnant again Olivia (the play’s director Cathy Lee-Visscher) shows up unexpectedly to collect Laurel and Mrs. St. Maugham summons her friend, the Judge (powerful George Filieau) for advice. His arrival holds the key to Madrigal’s past. Also, on hand, are Maitland (wily Steve King) the manservant of the house who has recently been released from prison.
The play is something you don’t encounter every day. A witty and literate exploration of women and their choices making their way in the world. Madrigal and Laurel are the main combatants and they each can give as good as they get. Ms. McCarthy is an accomplished presence onstage and like Laurel’s search for Madrigal’s secret, I combed through her bio to find the training that produced such an assured and balanced performance. She was a delightful mystery at the center of this genteel story without whom the play would have fallen apart. Well done. Elisheva Malfatto has a difficult job playing the wild child who sets fires and can often be heard screaming out in the yard. It is a test of the actress that we need to invest our sympathies in someone with this brattish behavior. Elisheva does very well with the role, throwing herself about the tasteful living-room in her smart dresses (Joanne Maurer did double duty as costume designer and Second Applicant for the Nanny position) with her perfect dialect. She’s a child worth fighting for. Mrs. St. Maugham as played by Wendy Power Spielmann has a firm control of her performance and almost makes us doubt that this controlling woman needed any help at all. Steve King as Maitland plays the angles with his startled reactions and we quickly come to trust his judgment as the servant who sees the most. Cathy Lee-Visscher has directed all impressively, like a conductor bringing together many voices in the Renaissance to sing a madrigal, she tells this very appealing story of disparate lives struggling to find a place where they can gain sustenance and grow. Her hand behind this production and the Playhouse is evident throughout and deserves as hearty a round of applause as her production received at Sunday’s matinee where the former Town Hall was packed.
The Ghent Playhouse is one of the sweetest jewel box theaters in the Capital Region and it is dependably equipped with terrific sets designed by Sam Reilly. This one is another stunner. It’s a cozy English country house with wood trim on its walls, ceiling, windows and doors all with branches visible outside. There are two different levels, five entrances including one with stairs to the rooms above and overstuffed chairs. It amazingly looks functional, appealing and character revealing all at the same time. Joe Sicotte lit this beauty. Also featured in walk-on parts are Karen McNulty and Jewel Winant who equip themselves admirably. I’m looking forward to seeing them do more.
The Ghent Playhouse is a favorite destination of ours. There is nothing like driving miles and miles of twisting gray roads in the dead of winter to finally arrive at a home glowing with warmth, generosity and fellow feeling to be received and revived once again. “I shall continue to explore the astonishment of living.”