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 ten plays produced by America's regional theaters. GableStage's production in its cozy space at Coral Gables' Biltmore Hotel, previews Friday, June 9, and runs Saturday, June 10, through Sunday, July 16.
"When I read the play, I thought, Oh, this is fun. It's kind of a creative vacation," says the show's director Victoria Collado. "The conflicts are funny."
Collado adds that GableStage's production "will lean into how ridiculous an argument can be."
When a younger Latin 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.
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.
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.
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 a memorable woman 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' 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.
"[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.
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 a while 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 5 and doing commercials since she was 8 (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.
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."
"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.
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 coproduction of GableStage and the Abre Camino Collective, which she cofounded 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 seasonGableStage 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 September 29-October 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 November 17 to December 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 January 12-February 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.
– Christine Dolen, ArtburstMiami.com
Native Gardens. Friday, June 9, through Sunday, July 16, at GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets cost $40 to $70. Performances Wednesday 2 and 7 p.m., Thursday and Saturday 8 p.m., and Sunday 2 p.m. Sunday; additional matinees July 7 and July 15.