The cast of “Native Gardens” during its Minneapolis production. From left: Dan Domingues, Jacqueline Correa, Sally Wingert and Steve Hendrickson. The realistic backyard set was designed by Joe Tilford and modeled on Washington houses. (Dan Norman/Dan Norman Photography)

Joe Tilford can't remember the names of the Northern Virginia neighborhoods he and his wife, Deborah Wentworth, skulked through early last year, but perhaps you saw the couple.

"We'd find a place to park, then walk around and hope that nobody called the police," Joe said. "We'd get up close to the house and start taking detailed photographs of the gardens and just about every imaginable surface."

That included the lawns, the flower beds, the sidewalks, the bricks, the painted exterior walls — all were captured by the couple's cameras. And whenever a curious homeowner emerged and demanded to know what was going on, Joe had an explanation: "Well," he'd say, "I'm a theatrical designer, and I'm designing a stage set."

You can see the results of Joe's research at Arena Stage, where "Native Gardens," a comedy by playwright Karen Zacarías, is making its Washington premiere.

The action in "Native Gardens" takes place in two adjoining back yards in the District's Ward 3. Young professionals Tania and Pablo Del Valle have just bought a fixer-upper next door to Virginia and Frank Butley, an older retired couple.

What those back yards looked like was up to Joe.

"The set has to be another character in the play," he said by phone from his home in western North Carolina.

Joe was tapped to design the set for the play's 2016 world premiere in Cincinnati. The script does not specify exactly where the action takes place, just that it's in a "stately neighborhood" in Washington.

"Trying to put two full-size stately houses on stage is pretty impossible," Joe said. "There's just not enough room."

So Joe pulled out some architecture books from his personal library — he's designed sets for 40 years — and started looking for a relatively narrow domestic style. He decided that a style known as Italianate could work.

Then came Joe's field trip to this area. (He thought close-in Northern Virginia was near enough and didn't venture into the District.)

"They are absolutely the same," Joe said of the two houses he designed. There are a few differences: "One has a back stoop, the other has a deck. One is painted, the other is the original brick."

And there are those gardens. The Del Valles' garden — like their house — needs work. A tall, untrimmed oak tree grows menacingly, an arboreal version of Chekhov's gun. The Butleys, on the other hand, have been winning horticulture club prizes for their garden, though never the top prize, just honorable mentions.

"This is not an award-winning garden," Joe said. "This is an award runner-up garden."

To get a feel for what that meant, Joe consulted with a garden competition consultant. ("There are such things," he said.)

The consultant told Joe that Frank Butley would probably force his plants to grow in such a way that they became a thick mass of colorful blooms. Unnatural, even.

The conflict between what is unnatural and what should be natural "is really important in the play," Joe said. And the gardens — on one side a lush lawn, neatly trimmed hedges and compact flower beds; on the other, weeds and dirt — become the battlefield.

"We used dwarf roses — two different kinds," Joe said of the Butleys' garden. "We used azaleas. We used hydrangeas. We used peonies."

The flowers are made of high-quality silk. Said Joe: "From five feet away, you say, 'Is that silk or is that real?' They're that good."

Best of all, they never need watering.

"Native Gardens" — directed by Blake Robison and a co-production with the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis — is at Arena Stage through Oct. 22.

Arched commentary

Washington may smell like a bong these days, but the hemp is gone from the National Theatre. By "hemp," I mean the old rope system that allowed stagehands to raise and lower scenery. Over the summer, the ropes and sandbags were replaced by a modern system that uses mainly cables.

A discovery — well, a rediscovery — was made during the renovation: The National once had a much larger proscenium. When the hemp system was removed and the fire curtain lowered (for the first time in years), the tall brick wall above the stage showed a second arch.

"You really just never got to see it," said Sarah K. Bartlo-Chaplin, executive director of the National Theatre Corporation. "Our former operations manager was in one day during the renovation and said, 'Oh, my God — I forgot there was a second arch!' "

There are actually two arches. The proscenium has been reduced in size at least twice since the theater opened in 1835.

On Monday, stagehands started loading in the sets for the first hempless show, the Broadway-bound musical "Mean Girls." Performances start Oct. 31.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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