A kickstart to what one can only hope will be more plein air theater and cultural events at the Marion Art Center was enjoyed by a hearty audience on June 11 when the play “Native Gardens” opened under threatening skies in Bicentennial Park.
This Karen Zacarias play takes to task deep-seeded biases regarding socio-economic backgrounds, age versus youth or vice versa, and even issues related to women in the workplace. Well, in all honesty, it swipes at just about every prejudice a human being can harbor instilled either by nurture or nature, but it does so with such compassion and humor the pain is blunted enough for the audience to feel entertained, but not lectured.
Zacarias has been called the “most produced playwright in the nation” by the American Theater magazine and is herself of Mexican-American heritage. Taking her sometimes angry, sometimes funny but always tender treatment of biases, this play was perhaps a brave choice for the MAC, but one that Kate Fishman was thrilled to direct.
“I love all of her plays,” Fishman shared with The Wanderer. On opening day, she gave a brief peek into what the audiences will experience.
There are two couples. One couple is older, Caucasian, and has lived in the neighborhood for decades in their impeccably cared for home. The other couple is young, well-educated, racially diverse, and living in a fixer-upper.
While the early scenes paint an idyllic concept of how neighbors can learn to accept one another in spite of diverse backgrounds and vast age differences, everything is eventually torn asunder when it is discovered that the older couple has inadvertently encroached over the boundary line separating their properties. Soon that encroachment bleeds into the very fabric of each person’s long held belief systems, testing their strength of conviction in those beliefs and their individual ability to accept people for who they are.
Fishman, who has 19 years of community theater experience, said, “The characters come to understand that, although they are different, they also have much in common and they find a way to work things out.”
Yes, there is a happy ending, Fishman confirmed, and while the MAC was only able to produce one play in 2020, the delayed production of Native Gardens is an occasion for celebration. “It’s great.… Last year was barren, we couldn’t do this play,” she said. “Being able to have theater again is everything to the crew and cast and the audience … there’s an energy with a live audience.” Fishman said that when the audience responds to what they are seeing, the actor is inspired to give more to the performance. “They want to entertain them.”
Playing Frank Butley (the older white neighbor) is Donn Tyler, whose bio includes productions at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. He delivers dry punchlines like a dry martini – cool and smooth.
Mia Vaughn plays the young, very pregnant Mexican-American doctoral student and neighbor Tania Del Valle, whose thoughts on organic gardening ruffle Frank’s heavily-fertilized petals. Vaughn returns to the MAC as a recent graduate of Tabor Academy with plans to continue her acting as a career choice. She is fresh and sparkly while delivering lines that help to underscore the rising tensions between the neighbors.
Marion’s own Susan Kokkins plays the Polish-born Virginia Butley, who we learn is also an engineer who has had to fight her way into a male-exclusive workplace. Kokkins is not a novice when it comes to community theater at the MAC. Her list of performances includes such productions as “Light Up the Sky,” “The Dinner Party,” and “Lady Bracknell” to name a few.
And last, but not least, is Gary Sousa playing Pablo Del Valle. He cites his day job as being a teacher (doesn’t that require some acting abilities), one with a deep love and appreciation for all things theater. While he confessed in his written bio that he has learned that acting in community theater isn’t all fun, he said the challenge of playing this character will inspire his parents to defend any bad reviews he might receive. None here Pablo, oops, Gary, a solid performance indeed.
As for the audience, it was like a mini-Tanglewood lawn party for them, with their own comfy folding chairs, drinks, and snacks, enjoying one another’s company and simply feeling the joy of the moment.
So, if you are looking to have a good chuckle and enjoy being outdoors, you won’t want to miss Native Gardens with upcoming performances planned Friday, June 18, at 6:00 pm and a Sunday matinee at 2:00 pm on June 20. Visit marionartcenter.org for complete details.
By Marilou Newell