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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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