We Must Cultivate Our Gardens - and Back Stories

Cindy Guastaferro, Melora Marshall, Annette Perrochet
Photo by Liam Flanders

Noël Coward meets John Osborne in Enid Bagnold’s mid-1950s The Chalk Garden. This funny yet pointed two-acter set in an upper crust country house in Sussex, England is sort of somewhere between a Victorian era drawing room comedy and those British class conscious “Kitchen Sink” dramas that emerged mid-century in the UK.


To be sure, there is lots of witty repartee between the wannabe grand dame Mrs. St. Maugham (Ellen Geer), her (on- and offstage) daughter Olivia (Willow Geer), granddaughter/daughter Laurel (Carmen Flood), and the other dramatis personae. Although it may not be as enraged as Osborne’s classic Look Back in Anger, there is also a strong undercurrent of class conflict in Bagnold’s not-so-genteel play. (Both works emerged around the same time, although Bagnold, who was 64 when she wrote Chalk and had married into the upper class, had more regard for tradition - if not an unswerving allegiance to it.)


In particular, between there is class struggle between the so-called “help” and the head of the household, Mrs. St. Maugham. She clashes with Miss Madrigal (Melora Marshall), who has been hired as a governess for the unruly teenaged Laurel (who has a penchant for arson), and with the valet Maitland (Michael Nehring). Both of these servants have deep dark pasts that involve, shall we say, the prison industrial complex. Maitland served time for being a conscientious objector, although details regarding his C.O. status are regretfully never disclosed for some reason.


From the class point of view, the most intriguing character is the unseen head butler. Although Pinkbell is dying upstairs (and offstage), presided over by the much put upon Nurse (Holly Hawk), he is held in high esteem by Mrs. St. Maugham. Like Carson (Jim Carter) in Downton Abbey and Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) in Gone with the Wind (who, rather curiously, bossed around Scarlett O’Hara, as if the slave was the boss at Tara), Pinkbell is viewed as the repository of the hierarchical class system’s customs, the arbiter of taste and decorum.


Interestingly, Pinkbell’s instructions for tending to the estate’s garden are killing it, while Miss Madrigal’s directives save and revive it from ruination. Of course, this symbolizes the shifts in Britain’s postwar pecking order that threw out reactionaries such as conservative Prime Minister and empire lover Winston Churchill with the rise of the Labor Party, which implemented socialistic programs such as universal healthcare (something we Yanks are still waiting for). (Be that as it may, Labor’s Clement Attlee lost the Prime Minister-ship to the Tories by the time Bagnold wrote Chalk, but the changes had begun.)


Susan Angelo, who previously helmed Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum’s daring My Name is Rachel Corrie, angelically directs Chalk’s ensemble. It’s good fun to watch those two offstage sisters, Ellen and Melora, and daughter/niece Willow, spar and have at it. Nehring’s bemused Maitland seems to perpetually have his head in a fog (say, it IS England, after all). Young Carmen Flood may steal the show, with her oft-whimsical, impetuous adolescent who was ravaged in a park - or was Laurel actually molested? (Paging #MeToo!) Her murky back story is as unresolved as Maitland’s C.O. stance, while Laurel’s fire-setting has fretful Freudian implications amusingly dramatized.


It is especially gratifying to see William Dennis Hunt back where he clearly belongs - on the Botanicum’s boards. As an aging magistrate this veteran thespian plays a pivotal part when his back story on the bench bends way back, intersecting with the deep dark hidden history of one of the characters. Hunt revels in his role, which is finely etched and admirably played - welcome back, good sir!


Set designer Rich Rose has rendered WGTB’s stage with a more elaborate arrangement than one usually finds on its often bare boards. The script by Bagnold, whose best known work is the equestrian novel National Velvet, contains droll dialogue, clever, breezy banter and insights into the human condition.


WGTB’s thoroughly enjoyable, well-played production is good fun throughout, with underlying dramatic points about mother-daughter relations, the class structure, the prison and legal systems and more. Chalk it up to perfection. Set amidst the natural splendor of Topanga Canyon at an amphitheater adjacent to actual gardens, the aptly named Botanicum is an ideal place to stage The Chalk Garden. To paraphrase an illumined Candide in Voltaire’s satire: “We must all cultivate our gardens.”


The Chalk Garden is playing in repertory through Sept. 30 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see:


L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series” ( The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by Rampell is now available at: .