Theater / Film

GableStage’s ‘Native Gardens’ brings a border dispute into the backyard

Written By Christine Dolen
June 6, 2023 at 1:47 PM

From left, Diana Garle, Kevin Cruz, Barbara Sloan and David Kwiat play next-door neighbors in Karen Zacarías’ comedy “Native Gardens,” opening in previews Friday, June 9 and continuing through Sunday, July 16 at GableStage in Coral Gables. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

With conflict at the center of so many headlines, it’s easy to forget that coexistence among people with differences is possible. Not simple, but possible. And, in the case of “Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarías, the road to compromise can be uproariously funny.

Closing out the current season at GableStage, the four-character play about a burgeoning dispute between neighbors has been performed throughout the United States since its world premiere in 2016. During the 2018-2019 season, “Native Gardens” was among the top 10 plays produced by America’s regional theaters.  GableStage’s production in its cozy space at Coral Gables’ Biltmore Hotel previews Friday, June 9 and opens Saturday, June 10 through Sunday, July 16.

David Kwiat as Frank Butley is an avid, opinionated gardener in GableStage’s “Native Gardens.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

“When I read the play, I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun.  It’s kind of a creative vacation,” says Victoria Collado, the show’s director. “The conflicts are funny.”

Collado adds that GableStage’s production “will lean into how ridiculous an argument can be.”

When a younger Latinx couple buys the townhouse next door to one owned by an older white couple, a relationship that begins with civility and friendly gestures frays for multiple reasons, including a property line dispute.

The Mexican-born Zacarías, the first playwright-in-residence at Washington D.C.’s venerable Arena Stage, lives in the nation’s capital and set “Native Gardens” in one of the city’s historic neighborhoods.

Kevin Cruz and Diana Garle play a couple checking out their neighbors’ backyard garden in GableStage’s “Native Gardens.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

In his poem “Mending Wall,’ Robert Frost memorably wrote: “Good fences make good neighbors.”  That’s not always the case, as “Native Gardens” illustrates.

In her character descriptions, Zacarías describes all four as smart and likable – in other words, no one is a villain with malicious intent.  But differences and biases lead to escalating conflict.

Bari Newport, wrapping up her second season as GableStage’s producing artistic director, says, “Karen has done a fabulous job of very clearly drawing parallels between a border dispute involving two suburban lawns and all kinds of border disputes . . .The play is topical, polarizing, hysterically funny, all within a fabulous story.”

In the play, Tania Del Valle (Diana Garle), a New Mexico-born Ph.D. candidate who is eight months pregnant, is a passionate gardener dedicated to creating a garden built around native plants and natural ways of cultivating them.  Her husband Pablo (Kevin Cruz), who comes from a wealthy Chilean family, is establishing himself as an attorney and trying to impress his colleagues.

Virginia Butley (Barbara Sloan), an engineer working for a defense contractor, lives next door with her husband Frank (David Kwiat), who works for an unspecified federal agency and is devoted to cultivating his formal English-style garden, pesticides and all. After Frank’s much-anticipated neighborhood horticultural competition and Pablo’s backyard barbecue for his firm are scheduled for the same weekend, simmering conflict boils over.

Barbara Sloan as Virginia Butley savors nature’s beauty in GableStage’s “Native Gardens.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Kwiat and Sloan, a couple offstage as well as on, have each been in numerous GableStage productions.  This is Kwiat’s first time back at the company since the passing of longtime producing artistic director Joseph Adler during the pandemic. Sloan notes that this is her third time playing memorable women named Virginia in a GableStage show – she was Ginnie in Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions” in 2018, Virginia in Claudia Rankine’s “The White Card” in 2022 and is Virginia again in “Native Gardens.”

Discussing Zacarías’s play, the Carbonell Award-winning Kwiat sounds much like the teacher he was for so many years before retiring from the New World School of the Arts.

“I made a list of subjects she includes in the play,” he says, zeroing in on numerous issues or topics.

Kwiat says they include territorial rights, organic pest control vs. pesticides, biodiversity, a glass ceiling for women, inequity in the workplace, border walls, xenophobia, Islamophobia, politicizing issues, Brexit, ageism, racism, classicism, sexism, white privilege, homophobia, victimhood and the American Dream.

“(The playwright) uses alliteration in a really subtle way. She really crafts everything carefully. When you go over a script as much as actors do, you notice those things,” says Kwiat.

Victoria Collado is directing “Native Gardens” for GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Jorge Parra Photography/ Creative Mornings)

Sloan agrees that Zacarías is a distinctive playwright.

“Karen’s style is fabulous. I like the way she constructs sentences, though they can be difficult to remember,” says Sloan, who talks about the play and runs lines with Kwiat on their commutes to and from GableStage. “I think she’s funny.”

Garle, whose career in television and film is growing ever hotter, hasn’t been onstage in awhile but said yes to “Native Gardens” when she was cast a year ago.  The daughter of a hard-working single mother, the now-bicoastal Miami actor has been performing since she was five and doing commercials since she was eight (that’s Garle playing the cashier with dimples in the latest Pollo Tropical commercial).

In the GableStage play, she’ll be wearing a weighted baby bump under her costumes. Though she saw her cousin born when she was 18 (“it was traumatic,” she admits), she hadn’t given much thought to having a family until recently – maybe because she’ll turn 30 during the run of “Native Gardens.”

Diana Garle plays Ph.D. candidate and expectant mom Tania Del Valle in GableStage’s “Native Gardens.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

She and Sloan have been friends since working together at Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores and in City Theatre’s cruise venture, Shorts on Ships. She’ll share the stage for the first time with Kwiat and Cruz, who graduated from New World in May 2022.  “Native Gardens,” Garle says, is “very much an ensemble piece” incorporating serious issues into a wild comedy that surges toward the style of a telenovela near its end.

“Vicky (Collado) has an eye for the outrageous and the farcical . . .We have these very grounded characters dealing with outlandish scenarios.  I haven’t had this much fun in a room in a long time,” she says.  “This is a play about community, neighbors, who we live with and how we can coexist. It’s for everyone, to build discussion.”

Garle sees a little of her past self in her costar Cruz as she thinks back to making her own GableStage debut in Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” in 2017.

“I was wide-eyed. It was a real milestone. Kevin is a sponge.  He has such eagerness. He’s so good, so talented,” she says.

As it happens, “The Humans” was a milestone for Cruz as well. The aspiring actor, who lived in Puerto Rico until he was 13, saw the GableStage production during his freshman year at New World, where his co-star Kwiat was his teacher, and it left him awestruck.

“I thought, ‘This is what theater can do. It can bring us home,’ ” he says.

David Kwiat as Frank takes aim at his next door neighbors in GableStage’s “Native Gardens.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

He began a ritual after that performance, one he continues to this day.

“After the cast left, I would stand in the theater staring at the stage,” he says.  I would touch the floor and the walls. And I’d think, ‘One day. One day.’ ”

This production marks the second time Collado has directed a GableStage show. Last summer, she staged the Ruben Rabasa solo show “Rubenology,” a co-production of GableStage and the Abre Camino Collective, which she co-founded with playwright Vanessa Garcia.

Her cast, she says, “makes me feel like I won the lottery.”  And she loves working with Newport.

“Bari is one of my favorite artistic directors to collaborate with. She gives space, but she’s a good sounding board (who sometimes) proposes things,” says Collado.

Newport says of Collado, “Vicki is attracted to color, to bold choices. She likes to laugh. She’s a problem solver.  ‘Native Gardens’ begs for someone with a huge imagination.”

Next season

GableStage recently announced its 25th anniversary season, which Newport describes as the end of “a long and winding road” that involves “years of working relationships.”

The 2023-2024 season begins Sept. 29-Oct. 22 with the solo show “How I Learned What I Learned,” written by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson and Todd Kreidler. Miamian Robert Strain stars as the playwright whose Pittsburgh Cycle focused on Black life in each decade of the 20th century.  MacArthur “genius” grant winner Larissa FastHorse’s “The Thanksgiving Play,” a poignant comedy that comes at a beloved American tradition from a native American point of view, follows Nov. 17-Dec. 10.

Playwright Jon Marans will direct his “Old Wicked Songs,” about a young Jewish pianist and his antisemitic professor in 1986 Vienna, with a run set for Jan. 12-Feb. 4, 2024.  Newport will direct Ben Power’s adaptation of Stefano Massini’s “The Lehman Trilogy,” an epic play about the three German siblings whose namesake Lehman Brothers spectacularly collapsed in 2008; it runs March 15-April 14, 2024.

The new season wraps up May 17-June 24, 2004, with Miami native Alexis Scheer’s “Laughs in Spanish,” a comedy set in a Wynwood gallery during Art Basel.

WHAT: “Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarías

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

WHEN: Preview 8 p.m. June 9, opening 8 p.m. June 10; regular performances 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional matinees July 7 and July 15), through July 16 (streaming version available during regular performances June 16-July 16)

COST: $40-$70 (streaming ticket $27)

INFORMATION:  305-445-1119 or gablestage.org.

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