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Posts tagged as “the chalk garden”

The Chalk Garden Revival: The Wit, Wisdom and Whoppers of Ellen Geer, Melora Marshall And Carmen Flood

Special To Topanga Journal

Enid Bagnold (1889-1981) premiered the play The Chalk Garden on Broadway in 1955 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. It is a drawing room comedy mostly about the interaction of three ladies.

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

“There are so many intertwining themes and ideas in this multi-layered play,” said Susan Angelo, who directs members of the Geer family in this revival of The Chalk Garden. “It’s about the old guard giving way to the new, about fostering or stagnating growth, about the search for justice and how the truth ultimately sets us free. The relationships are human and complex. Beneath the comic English manner style, there is mystery, jealousy and deep longing. So many secrets and a lot of intrigue.”

“It’s about the old guard giving way to the new, about fostering or stagnating growth, about the search for justice and how the truth ultimately sets us free.” Susan Angelo, Director

Mrs. St. Maugham (Ellen Geer) is an upper class woman from another era in British society with masters and servants. Geer was in top form in her role as a dowager whose main occupation was gardening in harsh chalk soil on the surrounding property and caring for her troubled teenage granddaughter, Laurel (Carmen Flood). She was a natural fit for the role. She had a command of the character that was mesmerizing. Bagnold uses Maugham’s eccentricity to implicitly condemn post Edwardian snobbery and all the class struggle that went with it. Geer manages all these themes so eloquently. One particular line she tosses out with her hand flinging in the air toward her character’s daughter marks this so well, ”How can you wear beige with your skin that color?”

One of our very own, Topangan Carmen Flood, had an absolutely pitch perfect performance as the character Laurel in the opening night performance. Going into a Theatricum Botanicum play, one expects a certain level of gravitas from Geer and Melora Marshall. They’re seasoned performers, and they have wowed us before. We expected they would do so again–and they did. Flood, however, is up and coming talent. Her execution with wit, wisdom and whoppers was fabulous! She even brought such ideas through in her body language, hands, lilt of an eyebrow and curl of her lip.

Miss Madrigal, played by Marshall, had an outstanding performance. When we entered the theater Marshall was already on stage sitting in place. She stared forward as though no audience existed. She was just another applicant waiting for the lady of the house to call her forward for an interview. Miss Madrigal was there to be hired as a governess, to help raise Laurel. We find out Miss Madrigal has a green thumb too. Marshall expertly weaved her little lies with a silver tongue as Miss Madrigal. Far from from being a frightened little servant, she defies her employer several times. When the characters Laurel is hot on Miss Madrigal’s trail to find out her “hidden past,” Miss Madrigal gives her a shrewd smile and says, “You take my breath away.” Just as Bagnold’s National Velvet contained doubleness and disguise in putting forth a little girl who rides a $10 pony and wins the Grand National dressed as a boy, so too does the nanny in this story, Miss Madrigal, have a double and concealed past that slowly comes to light.

The three ladies lobbed comedic lines back and forth across stage with the grace of opera singers sharing a melody. They were so in touch with the other’s character the fluidity of the dialogue drew the audience into the characters’ world. The audience laughed more at this opening night than this writer has ever seen at Theatricum. It was a well received performance.

It would be unjust not to mention the well executed performances of Michael Nehring, as Maitland, and William Dennis Hunt, as the Judge. Nehring played a nervous and something of a Freudian influence in the play as a valet, or butler. He brings out the psychoanalytic side of the characters by his own dysfunctionalities. “I can’t stand criticism!” Maitland cries. He psychoanalyzes the character Laurel during her sometimes tender moments, and at other times childish and still other mad moments where she wishes to do harm.

If Hunt with all of his years of acting had not performed to the level he did, it would have been a huge disappointment. As soon as he entered the stage his face was known and presence filled the room. He has a certain je ne sais quois that fills the theater. His voice is booming and emotive projection voluminous. His character had one liners that set the tone for certain scenes that were the apex of the middle leg of the play. His character may not have the most stage time, but it is an important role that a lesser talent would have not pulled off as well.

The play is in keeping with the socially conscious theater the stage set out to accomplish this season. Bagnold wrote the play when she was 64. Freudian psychology was very much a part of popular thinking during her lifetime. She wrote edgy dialogue meant to dig into and make the audience feel uneasy about class bigotry and mother-daughter Freudian dysfunction. The character Laurel’s mother has divorced and remarried, leaving Laurel with her wounds, feeling abandoned and neglected. Mrs. Maugham teaches Laurel to hate her mother. The daughter, Olivia, is self centered and does not even bother to visit her child, Laurel, for four years, but shows back up once she is again pregnant with another child. The pregnancy again sparks angst in Laurel if there is room for her in her mother’s life. There was so much intensity of feeling between the actors that alone brought out the humanity of the characters. Slick delivery of lines and a sly glance here and there gave just deep enough subtext to the portrayal of each that the world Bagnold wrote came alive. It is a biting humor.

The Chalk Garden received after its original performance several Tony nominations, including best play. It’s London debut was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in April 1956. There is a film version that premiered 1964, which received Academy Award nominations. There is a BBC Radio adaptation. There have been several revivals of this play since its first debut.


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Theatricum Botanicum’s Season of Socially Conscious Theater

Special To Topanga Journal

We’re lucky to have Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. It is one of the best theater’s in Los Angeles. There’s never a performance that disappoints. We can thank not only the dedicated talent that performs there, but the theater’s artistic director, Ellen Geer, for continuing her father’s legacy.

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

The theater’s beginning’s wind back to the early 1950’s when Will Geer became a victim of McCarthyism and found himself on the Hollywood Blacklist. This Topanga theater was born from the juggernaut of twisted politics spewing from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lips. Actor Will Geer and his wife, Herta Ware, created a theater as a haven for Blacklisted actors and folk singers on his property here in Topanga. Geer’s friends such as Ford Rainey, John Randolph and Woody Guthrie joined him on the dirt stage for vigorous performances and inspired grassroots activism, while the audiences sat on railroad ties.

“This Topanga theater was born from the juggernaut of twisted politics spewing from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s lips.”

“The Crucible” at Theatricum Photo by Ian Flanders

Theatricum Botanicum is back this season with an exciting summer line-up of socially conscious theater, music and performances. The season includes five plays set to open in rapid succession and perform in repertory throughout the summer together with a host of satellite events. The stage will open June 2 and continue through mid-October. This season’s repertoire includes performances of The Crucible, Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Chalk Garden and Haiti.


To start the season off, Theatricum will begin with an allegory for today’s turbulent times. Shakespeare’s crushing tragedy is one of his more openly political plays. It is a cautionary tale of revenge. Rome, a city where the one-percenters rule, is led by a populist general who has nothing but contempt for the 99 percent. Unable to reconcile his disdain for the common people with his love of country, Coriolanus finds himself driven into the embrace of his sworn enemy. Coriolanus is a hero lacking in political prowess and destroyed by his pride and inability to compromise. The play is set in Rome’s transition from Monarchy to Republic.

The Crucible

McCarthysim, witch hunts, Hollywood blacklists and fake news all come into play in the upcoming Theatricum Botanicum performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The play is a parable of mass hysteria that draws a chilling parallel between the Salem witch hunts of 1692 and McCarthyism, which gripped America in the 1950s. Theatricum artistic director Ellen Geer, Will’s daughter, is at the helm, with family members Thad Geer, Willow Geer and Melora Marshall featured in the cast.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What a classic tale from Shakespeare and our annual audience favorite. The magic of Theatricum’s natural outdoor setting will stand in for the Bard’s enchanted forest, as director Willow Geer conjures up a world of wonder, magic and romance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Chalk Garden

Long-time Theatricum company member Susan Angelo directs the Geer family revival of Enid Bagnold’s classic The Chalk Garden. This timeless classic that has seen broadway and performed on many stages, even across the pond in London, is brought to our stage here at Theatricum with a dyed in the wool British dowager known as Mrs. St. Maugham, a selfish and eccentric woman who spends her days gardening but is unable to make anything grow. Her teenage daughter, Laurel, is a precocious liar. When enigmatic Miss Madrigal is hired as household companion and manager, the two finally meet their match.


The theater will present a revival of Haiti, a historical melodrama about the 1802 overthrow of the colonial Haitian government written by William DuBois for the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). It was subtitled A drama of the black Napoleon. The play was presented in 1938 by the FTP’s Negro Theatre Unit in a radical and controversial production that saw white and black actors performing together onstage at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. The FTP was part of the Works Progress Administration Federal Theater Project (FTP), and part of the New Deal economic recovery program. Negro Units, also called the Negro Theatre Project, were set up in 23 cities across the US. It only survived from 1935 – 1939 but provided employment and apprenticeships to hundreds of black actors, directors, theater technicians and playwrights. This project was a huge leg up for black talent during the Depression Era. The Lafayette Theater in Harlem was the best known of the FTP program theaters. Two white directors, John Houseman and Orson Welles, headed it in 1935. Three black directors, Edward Perry, Carlton Moss, and H. F. V. Edward, replaced them in 1936.

Other Theater Programming:

In addition to theater, Theatricum will present other special events on its mainstage.

• Wednesday, July 4 from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.: Theatricum’s fourth annual Family Barn Dance and Bar-B-Que;

• Saturday, Oct. 6 at 2 p.m.: The Woody Guthrie Story, the Geer family’s annual tribute to the songwriter, folklorist and labor leader who was also a longtime Theatricum friend.

• Sunday, Oct. 7 at 4 p.m.: Inara George and Friends, the acclaimed singer/songwriter’s annual concert that benefits the theater’s artistic and educational programming.


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