Old Globe’s ‘Native Gardens’ puts a comic twist on a fight over fences
Peri Gilpin has cigarette machines to thank for getting her hooked.
Not on smoking. On theater.
This might require a bit of explanation.
Gilpin — who spent 11 years in the role of Roz Doyle on the TV hit “Frasier” and is now returning to her stage roots in the Old Globe’s “Native Gardens” — was a fifth-grader in Texas when she ran across a youth drama class while out walking with her family one day.
“There were these kids doing this ‘ca-ching!, ca-ching!’ thing,” she recalls of that day at Turtle Creek in Dallas, as she chats during a Globe rehearsal break. “They were pretending to be cigarette machines” as a drama exercise. (The world was a little different in the ’70s.)
“And I go, ‘I can do that.’ And I went and did it, and the teacher, Cynthia, said, ‘Oh, would you like to join our class?’”
Gilpin would, and did. And after training at the Dallas Theater Center (which hosted that class) and later the University of Texas and the British American Drama Academy in London, she launched a stage career that ultimately would detour into television.
And thus in a very roundabout, tenuous, non-FDA-approved way that might cause this story to require a surgeon general’s warning, cigarettes saved Gilpin’s life.
“I bet almost everybody in theater you asked would say it saved them,” as she says. “To just find your world where you belong.”
It’s a world Gilpin is getting reacquainted with as she delves into “Native Gardens,” the topical Karen Zacarías comedy that’s receiving its West Coast premiere at the Globe.
The production is not the only play Gilpin has done in the past few years — just ask her about something called “Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas” in L.A. awhile back (or don’t!) — but it is the Globe debut of this gracious and sharp-witted artist who has theater in her blood.
Gilpin plays Virginia Butley, an engineer and empty-nester who lives with her retiree husband, Frank (Mark Pinter), in an upscale neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
The couple’s new neighbors are a younger, less conservative married pair: Pablo del Valle (Eddie Martinez), an up-and-coming lawyer of Chilean heritage; and his Mexican-American wife, Tania (Kimberli Flores), a doctoral student in anthropology. (The Globe production also features Alex Guzman and Jose Balistieri as landscapers.)
The fact that Frank lovingly maintains a formal and orderly English garden, while Tania is a fierce believer in native vegetation, becomes just one point of friction — along with an uncomfortable fact the couples learn about their mutual property line.
As Gilpin notes, the play deals with “ageism, racism, classism — and narcissism.”
“I think you realize it’s all about compromise — but it’s like the compromise you have as a parent, where you have that child and you realize, ‘It can’t be all about me anymore.’ And you start to make concessions and think more about the bigger picture. But you make compromises based on all the information.
“And I feel like maybe neither side has all the information to make the kind of compromises we need. And I mean not just these two families, but all of us — trying to understand each other, and what life is like for someone else.”
For director Edward Torres, who was last at the Globe with the California premiere of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful,” the Zacarías play is satire that cuts deep.
“It is such a crazy play,” says Torres, an Obie Award winner who came up in Chicago theater. “It’s kind of a comedy of manners. So it’s about how people behave, and why they behave the way they do. It’s about missed aspects of communication — misinterpretations and misunderstandings. And it’s really smart.”
Zacarías — the accomplished Mexican-American playwright whose works include “Into the Beautiful North,” which had a world-premiere staging at San Diego Rep last year — wrote “Native Gardens” before the 2016 election. But the play touches on multiple themes that have only become more present in politics now.
As Torres says, it’s “dealing with what’s native vs. what’s foreign” and with “the idea of the fence being a metaphor for the border wall.”
And the conflict over Frank’s love of imported plants vs. Tania’s regard for native species turns some social roles topsy-turvy: At one point, Frank expresses shock that Tania “has a problem with my plants because they are … immigrant plants?”
To which Pablo responds that the issue is the plants are “colonialists with gross disregard for the indigenous population.”
As Torres observes, “a native garden has plants that are indigenous and help the environment, vs. a garden that has pesticides and Miracle-Gro — it looks pristine and beautiful, but may not be so good for the environment.
“So (the play) touches on many, many different levels.”
One thing Torres particularly appreciates about “Native Gardens” is how, in his estimation, it doesn’t give its audience any easy outs, or tell them what to think about these characters.
“I don’t know how to feel, because I’m mad at both sides!” as he says. “But at the same time, the situation is funny.”
And “humor lends itself to honesty, I think. And if we get to the honesty of this piece, the humor is going to come out anyway.”
Part of Torres’ approach is through movement that aims to give a comic glimpse of the characters’ inner conflicts.
“A lot of the physicality I’m trying to go for is showing the (mindset) of someone who’s saying one thing but feeling something else. Sometimes you have that argument with your neighbor, and after they leave you’re incensed. Or you’re confused. And you feel like saying something but you keep it inside.
“So some of the movement reflects that in these characters. Whether it’s anger or frustration, I try to highlight that. And then we turn that off and go back to the real world of the play.”
Gilpin says that in discussions during rehearsals, “one thing we’ve all realized — and that I think is so interesting right now, at this moment in time — is that we’re almost competing to see who can be the bigger victim. And it’s so not who we are.”
She also points out that while the play’s subjects can be touchy, “With comedy, you can say some of this stuff. It’s a lot easier to hear, and it’s a lot easier to explore.”
But “it has to come out organically. (Torres) is not forcing comedic action. We’re just trying to get to the truth. If we do our job, no one is on anybody’s side anymore. Everyone is for human beings.”
Gilpin mentions an enrichment program that’s taught in her twin teen-age daughters’ school district. The program’s leader noted recently that it’s been discovered humans have a nine-second attention span; for goldfish, it’s more like 12 seconds.
That sounds about right to Gilpin, given the frenetic flurry of thoughts and observations on social media — a flow she feels the show is in smart sync with.
“I just think you get these sound bites — everything’s a tweet, everything’s an Instagram (post). And the way Eddie is directing — the pacing — you’re going to get a lot, fast, and it’s going to work.
“It’s fast and furious, and it’s a lot of stuff. And we’re used to a lot of stuff now.
“There’s a lot that’s being dealt with. And it’s all important.”
When: Previews begins Saturday. Opens May 31. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 24.
Where: Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
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