Co-stars Evelyn Hernandez and Laurie Klatscher the play about feuding neighbors
By SHARON EBERSON
Native Gardens is a play about neighbors learning to get along, so you just know it was destined for Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.
Theaters nationwide have been embracing the Karen Zacarías play among the go-to comedies of the post-shutdown world, and now it’s Pittsburgh’s turn, courtesy of City Theatre.
Besides seeds of discontent brewing over a patch of dirt, Native Gardens covers topics that are universal, and as close as our own backyards.
From left, the stars of City Theatre’s Native Gardens: Evelyn Hernandez, Laurie Klatscher, Juan Riviera Lebron and Cotter Smith
Zacarias weaves a tale of a Latine couple, pregnant Tania and husband Pablo, moving into their first home. Their new neighbors are long-time D.C. residents, who aspire to an award-winning garden. Soon a dispute over an area where Tania has plotted a “native garden” is at odds with neighbor Frank’s “perfectly pristine posies,” and a property-line dispute has each drawing lines in the sand. The comedy ratchets up the culture clashes as it exposes attitudes toward race, class, morality and privilege – and if building walls is the answer to settling differences.
Directed by Marc Masterson, Native Gardens’ cast includes Laurie Klatscher and Cotter Smith as the Butleys, Virginia and Frank – she’s a defense contractor, he’s the meticulous gardener in the family.
Their new neighbors are Point Park University alumna Evelyn Hernandez as Tania and, as Pablo, Juan Riviera Lebron, a Carnegie Mellon graduate and faculty member with a long resume of stage and screen credits.
Klatscher, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Performer of the Year who can be seen in the Prime Video film Dear Zoe, initially found her character’s white privilege to be “cringey.”
“I have to confess to, after reading the play, thinking this is funny and smart, but … issues of racism, classism, privilege, that’s weighty stuff. And I’m thinking, ‘How the hell is this going to play?’ I am so happy to report that it plays with such joy, so much fun. It is effervescent in a way that I don’t think any of us expected.”
Speaking on a Zoom call that included co-star Hernandez, she continued, “[Playwright Zacarías] has managed to create something that is so well-structured, where the stakes are so high, but no one’s trying to hurt anyone. … I think there’s something very optimistic about it. Sometimes you actually have to talk to each other. You have to bend to get things done.”
Hernandez nodded approvingly as Klatscher described the mood as the cast digs into the material.
“Seeing it come to life, it just brings it to a whole other level,” Hernandez said. “What I really love about it as well is that none of the characters are, ‘quote unquote’ good or bad people. They’re just people. It’s so easy to write off characters as, OK, yeah, this is a villain, this is a hero. They’re just people. And they have their own biases. They have their own prejudices, whether they want to admit to them or not. And that’s just something that’s so human. And I think that’s why it’s such an important play to put on, especially now.”
The play allows the actors to mine situational humor, hopefully earning laughs from audience members who may also find themselves taking stock of their own attitudes.
“You’re going to laugh when you see it, and that’s great, because you can exhale. But it also makes you kind of think, ‘Am I kind of like that, too? Do I kind of connect with those people?’ It’s a great conversation to have.”
For Hernandez, the opportunity to portray a Latine character who is not “either like the maid, or the sex symbol, but a full-fledged person” has been especially rewarding.
Tania also is in the last days of her pregnancy, on top of a move and a dispute with neighbors. To say her life is chaotic would be an understatement.
“Passionately rational,” is how Hernandez describes Tania, her first City Theatre role since graduating from Point Park in 2016. The Pittsburgh CAPA alumna was seen in The Time of the Butterflies for Prime Stage Theatre in 2019.
“It’s been great fun,” Hernandez said of being welcomed at City Theatre. “Juan, Laurie, Cotter are wonderful actors to work alongside, and they’ve really helped me kind of encompass my character as well.”
This is Klatscher’s first time acting with stage and screen actor Smith (HBO’s Mindhunter), although he worked with her and the rest of the cast of Quantum Theatre’s The Cherry Orchard, as an instructor in the Active Analysis acting method.
“He’s such a delicious partner and his character is so dear,” Klatscher said of Smith. “[As Frank], he takes up gardening as a way of having stress release. And of course, all it is is stressful.”
Klatscher’s Virginia is a woman who fought her way up in the ranks of a male-dominated occupation. The actress notes that “she wouldn’t describe herself as a feminist, but she certainly has that in her.”
That these two people are thrown together as neighbors is an encounter that might be seen as a positive. The old-school Butleys are willing to try, until seeds of unrest are planted …
“They are acting like it’s going to be fine,” Klatscher said. “Then there’s the whole notion of, do good neighbors make good friends? Or, do fences make good neighbors? In a funny way, if this conflict hadn’t happened, they would probably just wave to each other.”
Being forced to get to know each other comes with its ups and downs. However, there is always the potential to become “truer neighbors,” as Hernandez puts it.
Along the way, however, “There are a lot of shenanigans,” Hernandez says with a smile.
Throughout its previous incarnations, from the West Coast to Maryland, Native Gardens has been described by critics as everything from “humorous and optimistic at a time when the world seems so bleak … a ‘blooming’ success” to “a play that uses timely topics to explore the timeless nature of the ways people create and nurture animosities.”
A little crack in the armor of single-mindedness – Frank and his precious, perfect blossoms vs. environmentalist Tania, who “holds this idea of a garden where everything is organic and native very close to her heart” – might be all it takes to reach an understanding.
Frank and Pablo, however, are ready to dig into their positions on property lines and the legalities of crossing them.
If only they could resolve their differences and “realize there’s just so much more to life than just a couple feet of yard,” Hernandez said. “If we just communicate effectively and efficiently, we can actually resolve things in a peaceful manner. Which, I mean, that’s really all any of us want.”
“Native Gardens” is on the Mainstage of City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side, March 11-April 2 (opening night is March 17). Preview the show program here. Tickets and information: https://citytheatrecompany.org/play/native-gardens/ or call 412-431-2489 (CITY).
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