This fall’s production of “The Secret Garden” will bring a bouquet of fresh faces to the Troy Howard Middle School stage, and performing arts teacher Jason Bannister said it’s given the drama program a lot of opportunity for growth.

“We lost a lot of eighth graders to the high school,” Bannister said. “But we ended up having more than that number of kids replaced by sixth graders, so we got to have two casts.”

Beginning on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 17, the THMS Center Stage Ensemble will present “The Secret Garden”, the story of 10-year-old Mary Lennox (played by Haili Rahkonen), an unruly child who grew up in India and whose parents left her to the care of servants. When Mary is orphaned following a cholera outbreak, she is sent to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Skyler Bean) in his large estate in England. The home has many mysteries within its walls, as well as a garden that has been locked for 10 years.

After Mary’s arrival to the Craven estate, she meets several characters including Dickon (Leander Andrews), a boy who tends the gardens and regularly communicates with a robin that often visits the grounds, and Martha (played by Madison Hemingway and Alice Baird), a friendly young maid who is also Dickon’s sister. Mary also meets her wheelchair-bound cousin Colin (Cameron Pillitteri), who spent his days alone until Mary stumbles upon his room one day.

One of the many newcomers to the THMS Center Stage Ensemble is the actress who plays the lead role of Mary, Rahkonen, who is in the sixth grade.

Rahkonen, who comes off as a bubbly and engaging young woman, said one of the more challenging aspects of playing the part of Mary has been showing the audience the less-desirable side of the character that is prominent in the beginning of the story.

“I have to act mean, like I don’t care about anything,” she said with a smile.

The youth said she was pleasantly surprised to learn she got the lead role, especially since she initially auditioned for a much smaller role on the advice of her family.

“My parents told me not to expect to get a big part because there would probably be a lot of eighth graders who are more experienced,” she said.

When she learned she earned the lead role, Rahkonen said she was a little overwhelmed.

“I was really super nervous,” she said. “I was looking at the script and I saw that I have over 200 lines.”

Rahkonen said she’s become more comfortable with her role now that she’s memorized many of her lines, and she is looking forward to show time, when her family will be able to see the fruits of her labor. She added that being involved with the production has allowed her and her classmates to get to know the older students who have been involved in past THMS productions.

Bannister, who for the first time this year is teaching a performing arts class at THMS in addition to serving as the drama advisor, said it’s been a big help to have assistance on the set from seventh and eighth graders who are taking his class.

As part of the classroom work, Bannister said students have been trying their hands at organizing everything from costumes and make-up to set and light design for the school’s upcoming performance of “The Music Man”. The students have also played a big role behind the scenes in getting this fall’s show on the road, Bannister said.

That partnership, said Bannister, has helped foster a greater appreciation among the student body for the youths who do choose to participate in drama.

“The kids who aren’t involved in theater, who really aren’t into it, get a better understanding of how much work is involved in putting a show together,” he said.

Another important behind-the-scenes player, said Bannister, is stage manager Alison Walker. The eighth grader, who has been involved in the THMS drama program since she came to the school as a sixth grader, said she most enjoys working with the crew. She added that many of the crew members are sixth graders, and that she hopes her work with them this year will inspire them to come back for more.

“I hope they’ll continue with this like I did, and stay with it throughout middle school,” she said.

“The Secret Garden” will open Thursday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m., and will be presented again Friday and Saturday evenings, Nov. 18 and 19. A Sunday show is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 20 at 2 p.m. All shows will be held at THMS. A donation of $5 is suggested at the door, and proceeds will help cover the cost of future productions. Students are admitted free of charge.