Review: ‘The Girls of the Garden Club’ at Laurel Mill Playhouse

The Girls of the Garden Club, written by John Patrick, directed by Larry Simmons and produced by Maureen Rogers, is presently playing at Laurel Mill Playhouse located on historic Main Street in Laurel, Maryland.

Sam David, Jim Berard. Photo courtesy of Laurel Mill Playhouse.

The Girls of the Garden Club is a delightful surprise. It is light, frothy and downright funny.  It was one of Patrick’s last manuscripts. His last successful play had been a couple of decades before this one. His primary successes at that point had been writing screenplays. However, The Girls of the Garden Club is witty and, well, like eating a decadent piece of rich chocolate cake. The plot is right out of television sitcom. There is no deep meaning.  Some of the characters will remind you of those you see on classic television reruns, but you will enjoy each delicious bite.

Briefly, the plot revolves around Rhoda (Sam David), a member of the Garden Club. Her husband, Leonard (Jim Berard), and daughter, Marigold (Rachel Kilgallon) are not very supportive of her passion for flowers. Rhoda wants a greenhouse for her magnificent plants, like the ones owned by most of the other ladies in the club. Her husband continually refuses to build one for her. When Rhoda pointed out that the White House has a greenhouse, Leonard told her when she becomes president, she can have one, too. She realizes later he had not said president of what. So, she loosely interprets that to include president of the Garden Club. She then sets out, with the help of her closest friends in the group, to snatch the president’s position away from its longtime chief executive, LillyBelle (Barbara Gasper).

In order to accomplish this, Rhoda has to win the prize for the best flower at the garden show. She has up her sleeve two bulbs called Sleeping Virgins from Burma. Rhoda believes these are the only two of their kind in the United States. Their blooms are known for their beauty, and it looks like she is a shoo-in. Predictably, everything goes wrong, mostly due to the pranks of Marigold and her immature male friend, Dillson (Zach Polignone) and Marigold’s less-than-obedient dog, Socrates (heard offstage).

The reason this play works is the acting. Under the fine direction of Larry Simmons, the actors all shine as they move deftly around the stage. Simmons keeps things so focused on the witty lines and the lush foliage that you don’t realize the plot is so transparent. Simmons also did the set, lighting and sound design. The bluish-green walls highlight the lush green plants.  The furniture seemed cozy but gives the actors plenty of room to move about. The Sleeping Virgin plant (which appears in three versions) becomes a character in its own right.

Again, though, it is the actors who make this play work. David, back from her wonderful portrayal in Calendar Girls at LMP, takes the role of Rhoda to wonderful heights. The actress goes from the conniving wife, to the good but manipulative friend, to the unnerved mother of a teenager, to a defeated woman wallowing in self-pity and alcohol. Her comedic timing is precise, and one of the few problems is the laughter sometimes drowns out the next funny line.

Jim Berard plays Leonard, who has decided not to utter a word until his wife stops asking for a greenhouse. So, he is mute the entire play with one exception. Berard is hysterical as the slovenly husband whose wife’s devotion to her plants often displaces him in his own home. Berard uses his eyes and body language to get the most humor in his portrayal.

Kilgallon’s Marigold captures the teen’s disenchantment with her mom’s hobby and even her own name. She is sometimes the adult and sometimes the mischievous child. Zach Polignone is the irritating almost 15-year-old smitten with Marigold. He delivers his sometimes-corny lines (the play was written when Patrick was in his 70s in the late 1970s) with aplomb. Both teen actors show a great deal of potential in these roles.

Maureen Rogers, Shirley Bishop. Photo courtesy of Laurel Mill Playhouse.

Maureen Rogers makes best friend, and Dillson’s mom, Cora, look like the role was written for her. She has her share of funny lines, but the character, and the actress, are often the concrete that holds this flimsy storyline together.

Shayna Bloom is Dora and Kiersten Harris is Evie, the pair are almost always together. Harris as the more low-key of the two turns in a fine performance. Bloom’s Dora who feels the need to punctuate everything Evie says, makes what could be an annoying role into a one that get lots of laughs.

Shirley Bishop as the eighty-eight-year-old Birdie is a hoot. She has no filter anymore and says whatever she wants. She has the potty-mouth in the play and has no trouble talking explicitly about sex and politics. Birdie is also hard of hearing which leads to some very funny moments. Bishop controls the character just enough to keep her from being too stereotypical. She has most of the funny lines when she’s onstage, and Bishop knows how to make the most of them.

Dede is played by Becky Batt. Dede talks to plants and is anxious around people. The character is known for her squealing. Batt makes her believable and sweet even with the squeals. We really feel she believes her chatter to the plants will be received.

Patti Restivo plays Clara, the uptight secretary of the Garden Club. Restivo successfully is annoying as the member who enjoys constantly correcting everyone’s grammar, but has this strange obsession with macabre historical events which she believes foretell present outcomes. She goes from a controlled grammarian to a maniacal soothsayer so adroitly that she draws laughter from the audience.

As the disliked present president, LillyBelle, Gasper hits all the right notes. She spouts LillyBelle’s affected French clichés effortlessly and shows the audience the tough side of this lady. Gasper makes this seem effortless, but being the “villain” in a comedy like this is not easy.

The supporting cast, the rest of the ladies of the Garden Club, do an admirable job as well.  They include Karen Alibrando as Agnes, Phyliss Kay as Zelda, Maia Krapcho as Angelica, Penny Martin as Margaret, Marge McGugan as Francine, Patty Seitz as Garden Club Member and Diana Simmons as Celeste. This is a superior ensemble and one feels the comradery of this group that seems to be offstage as well as on stage.

Marge McGugan did her usually superior job costuming this group. All the floral patterns in the clothing were a nice touch.

The Girls of the Garden Club will bring tears to your eyes–not because it’s Hay Fever Season, but due to its side-splitting comedy.

Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, with two intermissions.

The Girls of the Garden Club plays through Sunday, October 6, 2019, at Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 617-9906, or purchase them online.


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