'Native Gardens' play blossoms at the Hippodrome Theatre starting Friday
Under the beaming suburban sun, two newly neighboring couples appreciate the pleasure and beauty of gardening.
However — as revealed through a property-line dispute that spirals into an evaluation of vast cultural differences — every rose has its thorn.
The flourishing production of “Native Gardens” blooms on stage at the Hippodrome Theatre in downtown Gainesville on March 10 through the 26.
The play, written by Karen Zacarías, highlights how an issue of space can evolve into something far greater.
Characters Virginia and Frank Butley, the well-established white neighbors, possess an undeniable connection on stage. This evident authenticity stems from the two’s relationship off stage as actors Nell Page, Virginia, and Kevin Rainsberger, Frank, are husband and wife.
After meeting through the University of Florida Theatre department and working numerous shows together at the Hippodrome, “Native Gardens” will be the first opportunity for the pair to play husband and wife as husband and wife.
Page has been a member of the Hippodrome Theatre for forty-nine of its fifty years, and her experiences there encompass every actor's dream, she said.
Embarking on this new experience of playing opposite her husband will be extremely rewarding, and she feels their chemistry will enable them to perfectly portray the pair.
“I trust his performance and that he can look in my eyes and know if I’m on or if I need to get back on,” she said. “That is comforting as an actor to be able to share that space with somebody who you can rely on to show up and be their best and be professional in all ways.”
The piece is consumed with social commentary that acknowledges the stereotyping each couple is doing to the other. In defining their circumstance by ethnicity and socioeconomic status, each couple’s perception of reality is severely limited, she said.
The thought-provoking nature of the entertaining and educational production encourages conversation and introspective analyses.
“We start to see our similarities more than our differences at the end, and it becomes a human story,” she said. “Our hope is that people will walk away, want to go get a cup of coffee and talk about it.”
Rainsberger feels similarly to Page surrounding the ease of performing alongside a spouse. Amid conflict through situational comedy, audiences will be able to sense the loving dynamic, he said.
“There’s just a level of comfort on stage in that situation,” he said. “You know you’re bringing an element of realism to the stage because it is real.”
To Rainsberger, the Hippodrome is an institution in which a debt of gratitude is owed. Leading an impactful production alongside his wife in the theater’s fiftieth season is the opportunity of a lifetime, he said.
Keeping the Hippodrome a thriving, historical site is a priority for its current members into their alumni years.
“I not only feel like the Hippodrome is my home, but I want to pay back as much as I can to the place that has given me so much,” he said. “Even though personnel at the theater has changed over the years, those of us that have worked there for a long time feel that love, connection and obligation to be a part of sustaining it in any way that we can.”
Director Kristin Clippard, who is making her Hippodrome debut after continually directing nationally, elaborated on the importance of the comedy about division and the value of seeing two sides of the fence.
“Questions about understanding other human beings are never going away,” she said. “How can we have these hard conversations about what separates you from me, but also recognize that we’re not that different and we’re all seeking the same things: happiness, security, safety and self-actualization.”
Clippard’s appreciation for the welcoming and hard-working cast and crew made this show a joy to partake in. Working with married couples holds a special place in her heart as that excitement is genuine, she said.
“It is such a distinct joy working with people who have such a deep-rooted history with this company and are such beloved artists of this place,” she said. “They point out each other’s quirks, but also highlight each other’s strengths.”
The unique quality of this production is the alignment in perspective between the actors and the characters.
The actor playing Pablo, the Latinx neighbor joining the community, shares the foreign-born American upbringing with his character. This enables his real-life experiences to speak directly to that of his character’s, and that translation is beautiful on stage, she said.
“Native Gardens” spawned out of the concept of borders in 2016 when the conversation about building a wall between the United States and Mexico was at its peak, and it has been one of the most produced plays in the country due its humorous approach to tough topics.
“We are able to examine ourselves very closely through a lens that feels safe and joyous,” she said.