Novelist and historian, Leo Tolstoy once said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is born out in La Jolla Playhouse’s current production, The Garden. This two-woman show explores the complex relationship between a mother (Stephanie Berry) and her daughter (Charlayne Woodard). Woodard, a two-time Obie Award winner is also credited with writing the script.

The play opens with Claire Rose working in her beautifully autumnal garden. Colorful leaves are strewn about her flower boxes and vegetables. It is evident she is in her element, reveling in the bounty of the earth, when, like the leaves, Cassandra, her eldest daughter, drifts onto her porch.

The tension is not only palpable but audible as the two engage in a verbal volley. They “talk at each other” and occasionally breach the fourth wall by speaking to the audience. A silence has persisted between them for three years, but now Cassandra has appeared, and Claire Rose is forced to face the reasons behind their schism. Through the 90-minute dialogue that ensues, we learn that both women have buried so many secrets and painful memories that have widened the gulf. Each harbors some jealousy that is masked by hurling herself into her passions. Cassandra complains, “from April to October we’d lose our mother,” as Claire Rose was always generous and nurturing to her garden, yet critical and “cracking the whip” with her daughter.

Cassandra, a successful documentary producer, has taken care of her mother financially, and provided a home and garden for her parents, selling their family homestead when her father could no longer manage the stairs. Claire Rose is resentful but for reasons Cassandra cannot know, reasons that she has no knowledge of because her mother has kept them secret, until now.

Claire Rose’s criticism of Cassandra is harsh and incisive. Her life experiences have taught her that one must “stand on guard” and through her tough love, she sought to prepare her daughter for the world’s hurdles. Of Cassandra’s activism, her mother queried, “Why make yourself a target?”

Both women have suffered mightily, experiencing loss, racism, and disappointment. Claire Rose revealed that she felt trapped, burdened by having a child, and then once she was tethered, she resignedly had more babies. Cassandra’s marriage failed as it could not survive the loss of her son. When her mother boycotted her second wedding, she felt further rejection and criticism.

With the unburdening of their stories, the barbs come less frequently and with less vengeance and the bond of mutual respect glimmers through. Claire Rose and Cassandra both “receive that,” digesting hard truths from each other, and acknowledging their actions that have exacerbated this prolonged misunderstanding. This unhappy family’s deeply buried injuries reveal the truth of Tolstoy’s words.

The acting is incredibly honest and brilliant. The two actors bring energy and truth to the stage, evidenced in their voices and physical presence. Rachel Hauck’s scenic design complimented the story beautifully, with a simple set for this one-act play. The garden beds and trees created a perfect setting for the story to unfurl as leaves skittered and wafted from treetops to the ground.

Berry received The League of Professional Theater Women’s Lee Reynolds Award in 2021. She has appeared on many stages on the east coast and received an OBIE award for The Shaneequa Chronicles. Nominated for many other awards, the actress has also been seen in films including Finding Forrester and Invasion, as well as numerous television shows.

Woodard has appeared on Broadway in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Hair, and Off-Broadway in Hamlet and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. She has been in several films including Glass, The Crucible, and Sunshine State. Recurring television credits include In TreatmentLaw and Order, Special Victims Unit, and ER. Woodard is an Adjunct Professor at USC and CAL ARTS.

The Garden will run through October 17th, and tickets may be purchased online at LaJollaPlayhouse.org or by phone at 858.550.1010

Republished from Jewish News Syndicate