I 've been reading an awful lot lately about efforts to keep students safe on college campuses. Safe not just from physical harm but from ideas, speech, and idea-speaking people that may upset them. Examples are as ubiquitous and darkly fascinating as that YouTube video of a python eating an alligator. In one recent spasm, at Northwestern University, professor Laura Kipnis found herself charged under the Title IX antidiscrimination act for publishing an essay arguing that, far from empowering the students, prohibitions against student-professor dating encourage them to "regard themselves as exquisitely sensitive creatures." (As of June 1, Kipnis had been "cleared" of any "wrongdoing.") New York Times pundit Judith Shulevitz wrote in March about Brown University students so alarmed by the possible psychic repercussions of a debate on rape that they designated a safe room "equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma."
I bet Frances Hodgson Burnett would've found that room ridiculous.
You know Burnett, the writer best known for the classic young-adult novel The Secret Garden. Born English in 1849, she was part of an era when rose-petal-delicate women suffered the vapors or fainted from hysteria. Yet she moved to Tennessee in her teens and became—as her rough contemporary Walt Whitman put it—"enamour'd of growing out-doors." Both as a book and in the musical version running now at Court Theatre, The Secret Garden is all about the difference between a stifling, infantilizing, self-obsessed sort of safety and the power (not to say wisdom and compassion) that comes from taking your chances in the world.
Burnett's heroine, Mary Lennox, is the ten-year-old daughter of a British officer serving the Raj in India. Inasmuch as her mother, a great beauty, would prefer not to acknowledge her, Mary spends all her time surrounded by obsequious native servants who do everything for her and accept all manner of abuse. (Burnett is fairly withering on what she sees as a servile Indian culture.) The one good thing that comes of Mary's insular life is that she's not exposed to the cholera epidemic that takes away her parents, along with every other adult she knows.
Soldiers discover Mary in her nursery and pack her off to a gloomy Yorkshire estate haunted by her Uncle Archibald, who's entered a kind of emotional safe room of his own since his wife, Lily, died. Wan, purse-lipped, and imperious, Mary has no idea that she can't treat English domestic workers the way she treated her Indian ayah, so she's mightily taken aback when chambermaid Martha refuses to dress her. "It'll do thee good to wait on thysen a bit,'" Martha tells Mary in her Yorkshire brogue. "My mother always said she couldn't see why grand people's children didn't turn out fair fools—what with nurses an' bein' washed an' dressed an' took out to walk as if they was puppies!'" And so begins Mary's education in life.
It can be a Disneyesque education at times, featuring a gruff old gardener, a gregarious robin, and the half-magical nature boy, Dickon, who's playing a pipe for an audience of woodland creatures when Mary first catches sight of him in the book. But it's also bracing to witness as Mary throws off her coddled, cushioned, puerile self to develop a healthy physicality, empathy, and engagement. The girl's a role model for anyone feeling terror stricken by Laura Kipnis.
The musical captures much of this spirit—though it also lops off some of Burnett's sharper edges, particularly with regard to Mary's mother, Rose. A true monster of narcissism in the original, Rose gets moved up a notch to vain but ultimately loving in Marsha Norman's adaptation, thereby facilitating a warmer show.
The 1991 Broadway production was notable for an opulent, clever scenic design by Heidi Ettinger (aka Landesman); as directed by Charles Newell, the Court staging forgoes a good deal of the gorgeousness to focus on making fluid sense of a story that has to encompass multiple realities, including memory, in a comparatively shallow space. It succeeds at that, and also at the indispensable job of doing justice to Lucy Simon's score, which—speaking of fluidity—snakes through The Secret Garden as if it were a single song taking on infinite manifestations. Music director Doug Peck and a five-piece band draw us from India to the north of England, past to present in what feels like a continuous, various sonic wave.
Peck has plenty of strong voices to help him. The acting in the lead roles, however, is disappointing. That's especially true in the case of Rob Lindley, who seems miscast as Archibald, his supposedly overwhelming grief coming across a feeble plaintiveness. Interestingly, the frailty in his performance makes it harder to forgive him when the happy ending arrives. It's left to a cadre of supporting players—Alka Nayyar as Mary's ayah, James Earl Jones II as the gruff gardener, Marya Grandy as Archibald's housekeeper, Suzanne Gillen as the robin, Elizabeth Ledo as a too rarely seen Martha, and, most vividly, Aubrey McGrath as Dickon—to keep things lively. vCorrection: This text has amended to correctly reflect the name of New York Times op-ed contributor Judith Shulevitz.