We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Planting, weeding, pruning, tending—the garden would be a Symbol in this rather overdone bit of business. The ancient and domineering butler, wasting away upstairs in that heavyhanded Chekovian way—he’d be a Symbol, too, of the gracious past that England’s upper classes have had to bid farewell to. It’s the ’50s, after all, and there’s been a war. The old ways don’t work anymore.

That’s what Enid Bagnold, the National Velvet author, is getting at with her tale of an eccentric grandmother, a wild-child granddaughter, and the alienated daughter/mother who’s run away from both. Oh, there’s a Woman with a Past, too, whose influence inevitably makes everything right.

This mysterious Miss Madrigal—the usually praiseworthy Laura Giannarelli, in a severe and solemn performance that lies like a lead cloak on the proceedings—arrives at the seaside estate of Mrs. St. Maugham (a broad but amusing June Hansen) as one of a handful of applicants for a governess position. But by the time the prospective governee, Laurel (Rana Kay, a trifle grating in her efforts at precociousness), has confessed to pyromania and detailed her father’s grim suicide, only Miss Madrigal is willing to take on the assignment—and Mrs. St. Maugham, a simultaneously strict and scatty authoritarian who seems to delight in her granddaughter’s unpredictably nonconformist ways, hires the off-puttingly opinionated Miss Madrigal more for her horticultural expertise than her pedagogical skills.

It seems, you see, that despite the opinionated advice—nay, the iron domination—of the unseen Pinkbell, the arboriculture at Mrs. St. Maugham’s isn’t what it should be. The enclosure outside her French doors is a “chalk garden”—the soil carries too much lime—and nothing flourishes because neither Mrs. St. Maugham nor Pinkbell knows how to bend old-fashioned ideas of what a garden should be to the reality of what the land will support. Metaphor, anyone?

Bagnold means for us to understand that something analogous is happening to Laurel, who under her grandmother’s erratic care has become a trafficker in gaudily embellished fantasies and ripe fictions (the father’s suicide, for instance), an emotionally damaged follower of impulse and whim, a fey creature “in love with [her] own affliction” who soon won’t be able to relate in the real world. “Words leap and change color in her mouth like fishes,” says Mrs. St. Maugham, and though there is no little pride in her voice, Laurel’s tendencies toward the dramatic gesture turn out to be rooted in a desperate need for attention, and her reliability as a narrator becomes a crucial issue later in the play. Bagnold presents the audience with two models for what may happen if somebody doesn’t straighten the girl out: Mrs. St. Maugham’s alienated daughter, Olivia (a graceful if mildly over-tragic Megan Morgan), whose rebellion against her mother’s ideals has cost her her own daughter’s affection, and, in Miss Madrigal’s cautionary tale of a murder trial, a nameless woman whose childish truth-bending led a court to disbelieve her protests of innocence.

Miss Madrigal, of course, makes rapid progress with Laurel; they’re kindred spirits somehow, and soon both Laurel and the harried manservant Maitland (tightly wound Brian McMonagle) are referring to her as “the Boss” and generally acting meek. But matters are brought to a head when a visiting judge provokes the revelation of the governess’ Dark Secret and Olivia’s return forces Laurel to decide whether to discard her fictions once and for all.

Bagnold’s language can be striking, even lyrical—”I move into court in the red glory of a dried saint in a festival,” intones the judge when asked to describe the rituals of his office—and there’s no shortage of ironic humor. “Now that there are no subject races,” Mrs. St. Maugham says, by way of explaining why she employs the ex-convict Maitland, “one must be served by the mad, the sick, and those who cannot take their places in society.”

But the playwright’s ideas aren’t always neatly ordered—the grandmother who indulges Laurel’s wildness, to cite only the most obvious, is also the mother whose strict observance of the forms created not a dutiful daughter but a brittle and bitter antagonist.

Washington Stage Guild’s production suffers from one or two similar incongruities: Mrs. St. Maugham’s complaints about her daughter’s fashion choices seem a trifle odd coming from a woman in a hideously unflattering pale purple dress, especially since costumier William Pucilowsky has wrapped Olivia in a rather chic traveling ensemble. And though Laurel does say she’s “16 but backward,” the line must surely have been meant to refer to emotional backwardness, not physical underdevelopment; Kay, however, looks barely 13.

Steven Carpenter’s glacial direction and the cast’s uneven timing sap Bagnold’s dialogue of the snap it has on the page, and designer Bill Largess seems to have taken the idea of a “chalk garden” a degree too literally; there’s what looks like a film of white dust over one corner of the room, plus a fan of white on the floor near the garden door. Maybe it’s meant to be his way of bringing the garden’s metaphorical sterility into the characters’ lives, but it just looks like somebody’s tracked talcum in from a powdery fantasy world outside; it might have worked in a more stylized production, but not here.CP