MERRIMACK REPERTORY THEATRE: Real Tree in Native Gardens Intrigues Audiences

Merrimack Repertory Theatre Production Manager Lee Viliesis poses with the 18-foot-tall, 2 ton real oak tree she installed for the production of the laugh-out-loud comedy Native Gardens, playing at MRT through Oct. 7. PHOTO BY Meghan Moore

Merrimack Repertory Theatre Production Manager Lee Viliesis poses with the 18-foot-tall, 2 ton real oak tree she installed for the production of the laugh-out-loud comedy Native Gardens, playing at MRT through Oct. 7. PHOTO BY Meghan Moore

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 In post-show surveys, the audiences for Karen Zacharias’ Native Gardens, playing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through Oct. 7, say they are intrigued by the real 18-foot-tall, two-ton oak tree, which is essential to the plot.

 When MRT’s scene shop, Bent Productions in Clinton, discovered that Brian Finn of Athol had to remove the tree from his property, they asked if they might use it for Native Gardens. With his blessing and the help of a team from the Athol Department of Public Works, Bent technicians cut down the tree and hollowed out a large portion of the interior. This not only made the tree easier to hoist and transport, but it also allowed for an opening to execute a special effect that delights audiences.

MRT Production Manager Lee Viliesis said that even though oak is a hard wood and naturally flame retardant, the now exposed interior of the tree and its branches had to be painted with a safety chemical, so it would not catch fire so close to the lights. Massive reinforcements were built under the stage to hold the tree, and the base was secured to a load-bearing beam that supports the theatre’s extensive light grid. Most of the tree’s branches were not useable, so oak and maple branches from other trees were screwed to its trunk.

 Viliesis said this is the theatre’s third show in two years with trees: 14 real trees in Abigail/1702 and numerous fake birch trees in Women in Jeopardy.

“Considering how much effort it takes to get a tree in the space, I think I might be done with trees for a while,” Viliesis said.

Noting other productions of Native Gardens use a fake tree, she said this oak adds a special touch to the set. “I think it’s neat to have this giant piece of nature on stage,” she said.

Native Gardens will be the 263rd play produced by MRT. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, the comedy, which questions whether good fences really do make good neighbors, will play Sept. 12 through Oct. 7. In Zacarías’ tale, a millennial, Latinx couple moves in next door to a white, baby boomer couple. After some good-natured ribbing over gardening styles––traditional designs versus the eco-friendlier native plants––the couples find themselves at odds over an unexpected property line dispute; a dispute that explodes into a host of verbal jabs and blows over race, culture, privilege, and the meaning of neighborly behavior.