That trusty old maxim about good fences making good neighbors leaps to mind — along with a host of recent political headlines — while talking with playwright Karen Zacarías about her comedy “Native Gardens,” opening at Pasadena Playhouse next week. Set in Washington, DC, and directed by Jason Alexander, the new production stars Christian Barillas, Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher and Jessica Meraz. Zacarías says the idea for the play was seeded at a dinner party where friends shared horror stories about long-running feuds with neighbors.
“I kept thinking how primal and poetic and absurd all these stories were,” she recalls. “It’s about shrubs or trees or leaves or mailboxes, but there’s something about it that triggers something very real, very human. I was driving home thinking that it’s almost like every battle between neighbors is something that can become a war, and it’s always about things like property, ownership, taste, and culture. I decided to use it as a metaphor for what’s going on in the world, but really as a way of tackling thornier issues — racism, ageism, sexism, classism — through the metaphor of plants.
“So really,” she says, laughing, “it’s the plants being political.”
What Alexander calls “the inciting incident” that winds up the main characters, and thus the plot, is one with which millions of people can relate: a disagreement over the location of a fence separating properties belonging to two married couples — up-and-coming young professionals Pablo and pregnant Tania, and long-established quasi-power duo Frank and Virginia — whose cultural, economic, and social differences give the comedy its flavor. Frank, who proudly competes each year for a prestigious award from the Potomac Horticultural Society, is offended by Tania’s ecosystem-supporting native garden — just as she is horrified by his pesticide-spraying approach to nature.
Comedy erupts as their differences escalate. That’s where some of the political relevance enters in, as characters insist on being heard without bothering to really listen to each other. Zacarías says the play originally had a much darker ending because “it’s easier to hold a grudge.” Surveying other feuds and people spewing hate on Twitter, she wondered what would be needed to reach a different conclusion.
“It just takes people wanting things to get better,” instead of nursing “passionate anger,” she says. “This does deal with what it means to be a good neighbor, which is an interesting question to talk about right now because it’s about civility, in a sense.”
“One of my lines is, ‘Just because you don’t like what you hear doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen,’” Fisher says with a chuckle, her elegant vocal tone assuming a singsong cadence as if she was cajoling a stubborn husband. “It’s all about listening, and then taking it in and digesting it. What’s happening in this country is that there are people who are dug in to their point of view without trying to find a way to hear what the other side is saying. That’s why I’m excited to do this play. Thank God it’s a comedy because we can laugh and go, ‘Ohmygod, I did that.’ ‘Oh, yes, that’s my uncle, OK.’ Then allegiances shift, and you start seeing both sides.”
Since premiering in 2016, “Native Gardens” has been produced at about a dozen theaters, including Arena Stage, the Guthrie, and the Old Globe. Zacarías, who lives in the DC area, has been quite involved in the Pasadena Playhouse production, thanks in part to her swapping out some “inside jokes that only DC people would appreciate” and collaborating with Alexander to incorporate some of his ideas. Fisher says she is relishing the opportunity to receive Zacarías’ input in person, and to rehearse for weeks with Alexander and the cast. She cites a Michelangelo quote — “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” — and draws an analogy to the work the actors do in rehearsal, continually testing various choices as they construct the internal logic of decent characters who start out trying to connect before honest differences cause them to clash.
“Michelangelo just got rid of everything that didn’t work and then inside the marble was the David,” Fisher says. “We’ve been trying some things — that’s why I love doing theater. You don’t have to show up with a performance ready to go like when you’re a guest star on a TV show. You have a lot of ways in which to attack a particular scene or a line, and it all comes down to looking into the eyes of your scene partner and telling the truth. …
“The language is very specific. It’s been an interesting process of learning the dialogue. As I break it down, I understand why I say ‘those ambitious kids’ as opposed to ‘those kids’ — the descriptive way Karen turns a phrase. Now we’ve learned our lines and they’re inside our bodies, coming out of us as if they came out of our own brains, that process is starting to come alive.”
The English-born Fisher, a respected film and theater veteran who lived in a half-dozen countries before settling with her family in Texas at age 13, is probably best known for her memorable turn as Kate Winslet’s aristocratic mother in the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic.” Long a vocal supporter of indigenous rights and environmental and women’s causes, she says “Native Gardens” is literally the answer to a prayer made when she was striving for a healthier balance between activism and work.
“I started praying, ‘Please God, let me use my talents, give me projects now that I can put this energy that I have for social justice and human rights into what I’m here to do because I love acting so much!’ And then I got ‘Watchman,’ an HBO pilot that just got picked up, and then out of the blue, Jason Alexander called and asked, ‘Would you like to do this play?’ I read it and I was like, ‘It’s about the environment and social justice and race and social norms and people of different backgrounds! Thank you, Lord!’ [Laughs] I feel really blessed that I got two projects that are about something really important.”
Zacarías, who moved to the United States from Mexico at age 10, says she is excited to see her work on the Playhouse’s main stage. “Our stories are part of the American canon. It’s a comedy and we’re talking about fences not walls,” she says, laughing. “Hopefully what happens at the end is, the person you judge is not the four characters but yourself and what you would do, but in a disarming way.”
Preview performances of “Native Gardens” begin at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, on Wednesday, Sept. 5, and the play runs through Sept. 30; $29-$91. Info: (626) 356-7529. karenzacarias.com, francesfisher.com, pasadenaplayhouse.com