If there was ever an argument to be made about the value of live theater after more than 18 months of dark stages and streaming shows, “The Garden” is the best evidence.
For 90 magical minutes on Sunday, La Jolla Playhouse’s season-opening world premiere of Charlayne Woodard’s play held the audience suspended in pin-drop silence. Theater-goers leaned forward in their seats to catch every word, they audibly gasped at several reveals in the story and leapt to their feet to applaud before the actors came out for their bows.
Woodard, who co-stars with actor Stephanie Berry in the moving drama about the reunion of a long-estranged Black mother and daughter, is famous for her TV work, but she’s naturally gifted for the stage. Frequently turning to speak to the audience who surround the stage on three sides, Woodard has a wiry, muscular energy, a you-know-what-I’m-talking about smile, and a golden-husk voice with a ringing richness and musicality that can only be appreciated in a theater. And the sparks that she creates with the fierce and formidably talented Berry are palpable.
A co-production with Baltimore Center Stage, “The Garden” was co-directed with a sharp sense of timing, humor and hope by two of San Diego’s most-acclaimed freelance directors, Patricia McGregor and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
Woodard and Berry warily circle Rachel Hauck’s stunning and authentic autumn garden set like two caged lionesses, who at first try to avoid direct clashes by distracting themselves with rakes, spades and watering cans. For these two characters, the fertile earth is their escape from pain and they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. When one of them does land a clean and fair hit, the other responds with the accepting words: “I have received that.”
The play is set in present-day New York in the backyard garden of widowed family matriarch Claire Rose. While she’s tending her radishes and cucumbers, her daughter Cassandra unexpectedly shows up from Seattle after a three-year silence. Cassandra, it seems, has come to heal the gap that has grown between them, but their discussion — sometimes funny and sometimes deadly serious — reopens old wounds and reveals long-hidden family secrets.
Cassandra is an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and a lesbian who can’t forgive her mother for skipping her wedding a decade before. She also resents her mother for not showing enough gratitude for the house Cassandra bought her years ago. Claire Rose tries to avoid bringing up her own grievances, but she’s angry about her daughter’s self-absorption, pushy personality and lack of understanding about the things that she truly cares about.
To say too much about this expertly crafted play would spoil its turns and twists, but one thing can be said. Claire Rose hid from her daughter the trauma she experienced during her childhood in the South. She hoped that shielding Cassandra from the family’s history would give her daughter more confidence and pride as a Black girl growing up in the more progressive North. Instead, it made Cassandra blind to her mother’s motivations, and also vulnerable to the evils in the world.
The production features gorgeous lighting design by UC San Diego graduate Sherrice Mojgani, costumes by Karen Perry, sound by Luqman Brown and original music by Kirsten Childs. For San Diego theater-goers starved for the intimacy and energy of live theater, this is the show for you.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 17.
Where: Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.
COVID protocol: Ticket buyers must present photo ID and proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours of performance time. Masks are required for everyone indoors.
Tickets: $25 and up