From the first minute, Attilio Favorini’s “In the Garden of Live Flowers” shatters any preconceived notions one could possibly have of the play. Initially, it baffles the mind and forces one to abandon any semblance of linear thought processes. As the reviewer, I sat through the first two scenes of William and Mary theater’s main stage production and desperately wondered, “What on earth am I going to write?” Hopefully, I have solved that problem.
Directed by Dorothy Chansky, the play centers on the late biologist and writer Rachel Carson (Kellyn Johnson), a crusader against the pesticide industry in the early to mid-twentieth century. However, the play is neither chronological, nor wholly biographical. It depicts Carson’s losing battle to breast cancer, as well as her struggle to make America environmentally conscious; however, it also explores American values of the period.
It can often be difficult to relate to a satirical portrayal of another time when we are so displaced from it. However, William and Mary theater aptly conveyed the notion of the nuclear family: seemingly cookie-cutter and typical, but ignorant and skewed beneath the surface.
It is nearly impossible to discuss the show in any logical sequence; it operates as a visual stream of consciousness. Yet, several motifs provide a glue to the play’s many pieces. Favorini incorporated the profound concept of Alice in Wonderland. Its presence highlights the notion of time in the play. When is it too late? How can one resist mortality?
The cast did especially well with these segments. Alice (Virginia Pasley), seemed almost ethereal, and at times, truly frightening in her haunting appearance behind an enormous mirror symbolic of the reflection of truth and the question of reality. The inclusion of life-size insects such as Lewis Carroll’s classic “bread and butterfly” embed a pseudo-psychedelic essence to the show that was enjoyable to the eye.
Yet throughout Garden’s various portions, Kellyn Johnson assumed a commanding presence as Carson, also aiding in maintaining the show’s unity. Due to age disparity, Johnson ran the risk of unsuccessfully portraying a sick, aging woman; however, her performance was both credible and touching.
Indeed, Johnson’s only weak moments occurred in her childhood depiction of Carson, but as the character matured, her grasp was superb. In particular, Johnson’s finest scene was her interlude with her doctor after a breast exam. This scene repeats four times throughout the play, and at each point, Johnson conveyed a heart-rending expression of pain and frustration that was frighteningly believable.
The rest of the cast was essentially without flaw; Trinity Freihaut excellently embodied Carson’s mother, Maria with a very tender, yet passionate demeanor. Suzanne Ankrum was also admirable as Dorothy, Carson’s friend and lover. She and Johnson complimented one another well and had discreet, yet evident chemistry.
Moreover, Jacqueline Ross, while playing eight different parts, particularly stood out as a cheeky bug “buzzing” her displeasure at a group of golfing pesticide businessmen.
While the male parts were less prominent, those cast acted equally well. Noah Foreman was nothing short of hilarious as both the irate, but culturally moronic Secretary with a keen intent to wage war against each insect roaming the earth, as well as the unsuccessful salesman intent upon selling a radio to Carson as she took a train to the Outer Banks.
Despite the nearly perfect performance by the cast, the show was difficult to follow at times. However, this was not due to any fault of the director or cast. It is simply the nature of the play. To merely be a spectator inhibits true understanding of “In the Garden of Live Flowers.” One must think deeply at each moment, or else the show swiftly becomes a conglomeration of life-size insects, Alice in Wonderland, and a breast cancer patient. Without a doubt, it is a great deal more than that.