WORTHINGTON — A cast of six Minnesota West Community and Technical College students brings to life the contemporary comedy “Native Gardens” at the local Fine Arts Theater next weekend.
In performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (with a 6:30 p.m. dinner theater option on Friday) and 2 p.m. Sunday, audiences will be drawn into the 90-minute play.
Written by Karen Zacarias and performed at the Guthrie Theater in 2017, “Native Gardens” explores the frequently comic implications of an educated, expectant and liberal-minded young couple moving in next door to a button-downed older twosome with a more static outlook.
“The older pair has a very well-kept English garden, but the younger two want to put in a native garden — hence the title — and the style difference in how the two families perceive their yards sets up a humorous clash between them that addresses class, privilege, entitlement and taste,” summarized Eric E. Parrish, the show’s director.
The four lead actors in Parrish’s production are a mix of acting veterans and newcomers.
Depicting the older couple — Frank and Virginia Butley — are Minnesota West sophomore Sam Martin and freshman Becca Matheney. Their new neighbors (lawyer Pablo Del Valle and his pregnant doctoral student wife, Tania) are embodied by freshman Sergio Sanchez and sophomore Kendra Rautenkranz.
“I’m in [Mr. Parrish’s] basic acting class and he encouraged me to audition,” said Matheney, a newcomer to southwest Minnesota by way of Bemidji.
“What I didn’t expect was that I’d become such good friends with the other cast members, and it’s really fun to work with people you enjoy being around.”
Matheney is brand new to acting, but as the middle child between two brothers, she grew up learning how to navigate conflicting opinions and “border disputes.”
“My character, Virginia, has more of an attitude and is more arrogant than I am, so what was the most challenging was adopting her characteristics because she is so different from my personality,” mused Matheney.
By contrast, Matheney’s stage spouse, Martin, has experience in at least five previous theatrical productions.
“But it’s been a while since I played a human,” quipped Martin, who during his Worthington High School years assumed the roles of an eel (in “The Little Mermaid”) and wolves (in both “Totally Red” and “Into the Woods”).
And last year at Minnesota West, he was Toad in “A Year with Frog and Toad.”
“I don’t think I’ve been a human since my freshman year of high school, so this has been a nice change,” said Martin.
Martin says he loves acting and performing; thus, his learning curves were slightly different than Matheney’s.
“I’ve never played an older person until now, this is the first play I’ve been in where music wasn’t involved, and I grew up on a farm without any close neighbors,” listed Martin.
Playing opposite Martin and Matheney are Rautenkranz and Sanchez. They, like Matheney, are fledgling actors who tackled their roles with assurance and enthusiasm.
“The most challenging thing is nailing all of the emotions and varying my delivery and expression,” said Rautenkranz, a 2017 Adrian High School graduate.
“I want the audience to know what the writer was feeling.”
Sanchez, a 2019 Worthington High School graduate, dipped his feet into the acting pool with the part of Owl in the school’s December 2018 production of “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail.”
“Acting is definitely harder than I thought it would be,” admitted Sanchez, who aspires to a career in computer science.
“I like portraying a different character and acting in front of an audience.”
Although Sanchez said he and his family have never had conflicts with neighbors, unlike the Butleys and the Del Valles, he found a link to his fictional counterpart nevertheless.
“My parents are originally from a Latin country too, so there’s that connection,” said Sanchez, the oldest of five siblings.
Than Than Kyaw and Antonio Vasquez-Ramon round out the spirited cast while filling multiple roles (think gardener, surveyor, inspector and nanny).
Parrish has created an impressive set, with the two couples’ Washington, D.C., town houses filling the stage and providing the critical visual cues.
“This is a really prop-heavy show,” said Parrish.
Aiding him with the technical aspects of “Native Gardens” are stage and set assistant Paul Seifert, costume coordinator Roxanne Hayenga and lighting designer Erin Belpedio.
“We’ve turned the stage into two pretty realistic backyards,” promised Parrish, “and there will be a garden hose with real water and a water fight in the course of the action.”
Parrish is pleased with how his cast has came together to prepare “Native Gardens” for local audiences’ viewing pleasure.
“The most interesting thing is how the life experiences of these students, and their individual backgrounds, have informed the conversations we’ve had about the play,” observed Parrish.
“They bring a wealth of knowledge and life experience and that’s fascinating; everybody is learning, and ‘Native Gardens’ offers a backdrop for discussing differences.”
Rautenkranz confirms that the production has been a gift in several ways.
“It’s been lovely working with this cast and director,” said Rautenkranz, “and it’s been a very positive learning experience.”
“Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarias will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Fine Arts Theater of the Minnesota West Community and Technical College Worthington campus. Tickets are available at the door a half hour prior to each performance. A catered meal (with the partnership of the Minnesota West Foundation) is available at 6:30 p.m. Friday; call 507-372-3448 for reservations.