What are we talking about today?

I'll get back to theme days once I find a groove of posting regularly. In the meantime, most of my posts are about some variation of books, bikes, buses, or Broadway. Plus bits about writing, nonprofits, and grief from time to time.

This blog is mostly lighthearted and pretty silly. It's not about the terrible things happening in the world, but please know that I'm not ignoring those things. I just generally don't write about them here.

12 December 2016

I Heard Someone Crying: Grief and The Secret Garden

Let me just start with this: if you're going to be in or near D.C. before December 31, do yourself and your family a favor and get tickets to The Secret Garden now. It's basically the only guaranteed way left to finish 2016 on a good note.

So this musical has earned the rare Cheekyness three-post treatment previously reserved for Les Misérables or the Texas Book Festival, and I'm doing it backwards from my usual show recap method--gushing about favourite actors and brilliant moments in the show will come on Wednesday, if that's what you're looking for. Today is about all the feelings when you're a widow and voluntarily go see something that's all about grief. (And it's long. Ye be warned.)

Before you go any farther, please know that these posts will contain significant spoilers for both the book and the musical. Spoilers are presented without a shred of remorse--and seriously, the book is 105 years old and the musical is 25. What are you waiting for?--but I'm including the jump so you can bail now if need be.

As I mentioned, this show has lots and lots of grief. Mary's grief (kinda--more about that tomorrow), Archibald's grief, Neville's grief, Lily's grief (and she's dead!)... this show starts off sad and just gets sadder as it goes along, with brief but brilliant glimpses of joy along the way.

When the actors started talking on Twitter about how many tears were shed during rehearsal, I knew I'd better go into training for this. So I listened to the cast album for a week leading up to the show, did a lot of crying at work as a result, and I gotta tell ya, if I'd heard some of those lines for the first time in the theatre, I may have had to go sit outside to pull myself together before we even got out of the first act. As it was, this was me at intermission:
"I Heard Someone Crying" is a song early in Act I.

Some background: Mary Lennox is a British girl born in India during the British Raj. Her parents and everyone she's ever known all die quite suddenly in a cholera epidemic, and she's sent to England to live with her reclusive uncle, Archibald Craven, who has been nursing a broken heart for 10 years ever since his wife, Lily, died. Archie's brother, Neville, had also secretly been in love with Lily, and after she died he gave up his private practice to come be the live-in doc for Archie & Lily's son, Colin. So the house is already filled with sad living people and sad ghosts when Mary arrives.

Archie sits through a lot of sleepless nights regretting what he's lost, wandering the halls of his massive house, singing beautiful duets with his dead wife's ghost, and generally being the saddest guy around. Y'all, if I were independently wealthy and didn't have to go to work around other people every day, I'd be well on my way to becoming Archibald Craven. Especially since I've recently started living alone and haven't had a decent night's sleep in--I don't even know how long. Much like Archie, I meet my departed spouse in dreams and fantasies, and sometimes one or the other of those wakes me up and that's the end of any sleep. Unlike Archie, I don't have long and empty hallways to roam while holding a candlestick and shouting "Where are you? I need you!" at Chadwick.

All that to say, I have nothing but sympathy for Archie, and was crying along with him the entire show. At one point Neville says what we're all thinking: "He wants the past undone...To have ever loved her, never known how complete a loss could be." I hear ya, buddy--it's the completeness of loss that knocks me to the floor at least once a day.

Which brings us to the last 15 or so minutes of the show and the songs "Where in the World" and "How Could I Ever Know," also known as, "We sure hope you got rehydrated at intermission for all the crying that is about to come." "Where in the World" is the time when Archie himself finally puts the moping aside to let loose his anger, and gets very, very real about what it's like to be widow(er)ed.

The feeling of thinking that you've just seen your loved one across the street only to be bitterly disappointed on a second look, the screaming inside your head of how your life could be better right now if you just hadn't ever had the love and happiness then, the shouting "How could you do this to me?" at the empty space your spouse used to fill, the guilt for even thinking those thoughts. The ache, the emptiness, the knowledge that tomorrow will be no better than today--all in one pain-filled song. I was sobbing through the whole thing because it was just too real. I'm not sure whether I want to send the songwriter a vase of flowers or a strongly-worded email, because that was a lot of pain compressed into two minutes.

And then it gets worse, because Lily appears onstage in response to Archie's screaming frustration to sing "How Could I Ever Know," the come-to-Jesus song that most widows have to have with ourselves at some point because not all of our dead spouses turn up on cue like this. She reassures Archie that she didn't leave him on purpose, that she would never have chosen to put him through this, that she still loves him for all eternity--and then says it's time for him to stop wallowing and get on with his life. In the middle of this song, Archie fell to his knees as if he just couldn't go on, which added so much power to the whole thing. And then he did get up and made a start toward re-entering life, so that the final scene of the show is the happiest one.

I've learned from experience to expect an emotional crash a few days after going to the theatre. So I was expecting this one to be huge--and it didn't happen. I'm pretty sure it's because my emotions were already about as low as they could go in those last few songs, and I got it all out right there in the theatre. Which is definitely preferable to getting it all out in the break room at work.

I go to the theatre because it's healing escapism, but this may be the most healing show I've ever seen. Part of it is the timing--the two-year dread-a-versary is coming soon, but even six months ago I may not have been ready for a show with this much real, raw emotion in it. So in that way I'm unlike Archibald Craven--I can look back from here and see how far I've come, even though I know the road ahead is still long and dark. The promise of a garden at the end is a beautiful one.

I shared a bit of that on Twitter after the show, and this happened:
Michael Xavier plays Archibald Craven. Brilliantly, I might add.
I was crying along with Archie the whole time, so this tweet was like Archie was crying with me a little bit. I don't know where Michael Xavier (and the rest of the cast) manages to produce those emotions from night after night, but it was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.

Tl;dr: The Secret Garden is sad but also is about healing. Come back tomorrow for a look at Mary's parents in the book vs the musical, or on Wednesday for my usual raving about how great the show is.

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