A little gardening, a little conflict and a whole lot of history at The Hipp

The first time Nell Page trod the boards at The Hippodrome, she was Charlotte Corday, whose tragic destiny was to drown her odious lover, Jean Paul Marat, in his bathtub.

Heady stuff for a Gainesville High School senior.

“I got the part and I didn’t know what the play was about,” she recalls of her role in “Marat/Sade.”

“I called my father and started crying.”

It turned out her father had been on a panel when the movie version played at the old Florida Theater, so he told her all about the play.

“I had a very progressive father,” she said.

That was 49 years and, for Page, more than 70 plays ago.

Half a century later this Gainesville career actor is still impressed by the depth of talent and creativity she has consistently experienced at The Hipp.

“As a young high school thespian I was blown away by the caliber of the work I saw there,” she said. “Since then I’ve been very fortunate to get very different types of roles. The appeal of the Hipp has always been the very high caliber of the artists it attracts.”

On Friday, March 10 (with preview showings on the 8th and 9th), Page will be one of four actors headlining the Hipp’s latest production, “Native Gardens.”

And on March 30, at 7:30, she and Robert Robins, a fellow long-time Hipp veteran, will host an evening discussion at the Matheson Museum about the history of Gainesville’s only professional theater, founded in 1973.

This to be followed, on Saturday, April 15, by a 50th birthday celebration and open house at The Hipp.

Nell Page and Kevin Rainesberger borrowed a cup of their own marriage to be Virginia and Frank in “Native Gardens.”

“Native Gardens,” by Karen Zaharias is a comedy about a generational and cultural clash between two couples who obviously never heard the old adage that fences make for good neighbors.

In fact, it is the very fence separating gardening buffs Virginia and Frank from newcomers Pablo and Tanya that touches off this, um, crabgrass conflict.

Page is Virginia, and her stage husband Frank, as it happens, is also her real husband, Kevin Rainsberger.

Which turned out to be very convenient, because over their morning coffee Nell and Kevin would find themselves breaking into spontaneous conversations as Virginia and Frank.

“To be on stage with Kevin brings me comfort,” she said. “Because we’re married, there is a language you hear and see that’s not necessarily spoken. It brings in a level of fun that we just get to play with.”

Oh, and did I mention that their relationship began – naturally – through their mutual infatuation with The Hipp?

Rainsberger’s involvement with The Hippodrome began in 1978, when, still a UF undergraduate, he landed a role in “The Passion of Dracula.”

“Both Kevin and I had the privilege of being involved early on,” Page said. “Theater is a collaborative art, and the Hippodrome had a core group of founders who were driven and creative. I’ve been here 49 of its 50 years and stand on the shoulders of the incredible artistry of the founders.”

Nell Page still stands “on the shoulders” of the Hipp’s founders.

Rainsberger added “There was a sense among this group of ‘By God let’s put on a play, and let’s do whatever it takes to do it’’ despite having very few resources with which to make it happen.

In “Native Gardens” Virginia and Frank are meticulous gardeners who each year earn plaudits from the Potomac Horticultural Society.

In stark contrast, the yard on the other side of their fence is a wasteland of dirt and acorns. It’s newly owned by a younger couple, attorney Pablo (Marco Adiak Voli) and his very pregnant wife Tanya (Aléa Figueroa) who have virtually nothing in common with their new neighbors.

The trouble starts when Pablo discovers that the fence separating their yards was improperly sited – and that his property line actually extends two feet into Frank and Virginia’s prized garden.

“Our garden is all set up for the Horticultural Society judges,” Rainsberger said. “Pablo’s throwing a party for his new law firm. Getting rid of this fence is going to take out my garden.

The ensuing showdown “turns into a full scale sit-in with Nell chained to the fence.”

Listen, this isn’t a suburban ‘50s-era “Please Don’t Eat The Daisies” revival. This play deals with rather sensitive contemporary issues, including classism, racism and ageism.

Still, “what’s beautiful about this play is that it very quickly crescendos in such a way that these two couples are finally able to start seeing each other as humans beyond their own narrow-mindedness,” said Page.

Fifty years and three venues later The Hipp is still going strong.

For showtimes and ticket information see the Hipp’s web page. To attend the March 30 Matheson Museum discussion about the history of the Hippodrome, register here. Information about the theater’s birthday celebration and open house can also be found here.

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