‘Secret Garden’ to bloom at Willow Leaves in Hope

The way Connie Kiviniemi-Baylor sees it, her Passion for Acting Theatre Company’s presentation of “The Secret Garden” holds a timely reminder as the community and the nation seem to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This really is a story of coming back to life,” producer and assistant director Kiviniemi-Baylor said. “ When you first meet the characters, most of them are sullen and depressed. Tragic things have happened to their family members.

“But as the story progresses, you see them growing kinder and more alive. And you see the garden come to life again, too.”

All that rejuvenation and restoration will be front and center in the dinner theater show scheduled Friday through Sunday, and also July 23-25 at Willow Leaves of Hope, 326 Jackson St. in Hope.

“That (coronavirus) link kind of just happens to fit pretty perfectly,” Kiviniemi-Baylor said. “People and their activities now seem to be coming back to life.”

The production focuses on the character of Lennox, who is living in India with her wealthy British family, according to online summaries. She is a selfish and disagreeable 10-year-old girl who has been spoiled by her servants and neglected by her unloving parents. When a cholera epidemic kills her parents and the servants, Mary is orphaned.

Kiviniemi-Baylor and daughter Kathryn Baylor tweaked the show slightly with fewer characters for the smaller Willow Leaves stage and backstage. Plus, the duo trimmed the story locations to make sets easier to manage.

Student Rachel Hoke plays the lead character of Mary Lennox, a neglected and unloved 10-year-old whose parents have died. She is sent to live with her uncle in England on his estate that features a long-locked, walled garden where her uncle’s wife had died in an accident.

Needless to say, Mary is as thorny as the roses that once bloomed beautifully in the surroundings.

“I knew that this was going to be fun,” Hoke said. “I knew that Mary did a lot of yelling because she’s such an angry little orphan girl.”

That’s why Kiviniemi-Baylor and daughter Kathryn Baylor thought of Hoke for that role. Hoke showed in a previous Passion for Acting Theatre Company role in “Anne of Green Gables” that she could emote powerfully and with a short fuse.

“She played a girl (in that show) who was especially snarly,” Kiviniemi-Baylor said. “So Kat and I said, ‘Wouldn’t she make a great Mary Lennox?’”

When Hoke began rehearsing lines at home, dad Jason Hoke pitched in to help polish her British accent.

“He loves to help me with lines,” Hoke said.

Yet, when it came to accenting her character’s transformation from peeved to pleasant, Hoke wanted her timing to be right.

“That can be kind of tricky,” Hoke said. “So you ask yourself things such as ‘Do I need to be smiling in this scene or is it still too early for that?”

However, overall, the timing of a tale of healing and new growth taking root seems ideal for several reasons. And the producer highlighted another one of those reasons beyond the pandemic.

“I wanted to do this,” Kiviniemi-Baylor said, “before all the kids I knew who would be good in these roles were too old (for parts).”

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What: Passion For Acting Theatre Company’s presentation of the classic "The Secret Garden."

When: 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday. Also 6 p.m. July 23 and 24 and 1 p.m. July 25.

Where: Willow Leaves of Hope restaurant, 326 Jackson St. in Hope.

Tickets: $30, includes the play and a full meal with dessert.

Information and reservations: 812-546-0640.