NATIVE GARDENS by Karen Zacharias is a comedy that managers to tackle some serious issues; Determination to win driven by a deeply felt passion, Racism and White Privilege, to name a few. But despite the intensity of its themes, the play under Michael Matthews’ sharp direction, never loses sight of the laughs.
Tania Del Valley (Marta Portillo) and her husband Pablo (Andrew Joseph Perez) just moved into a fixer-upper in an old moneyed neighborhood in Washington. He has just started working as a lawyer for a very prestigious firm while Tania is completing her doctoral thesis and is VERY pregnant. Their neighbors are an older couple Frank (Dennis Gersten) and Virginia (Janellen Steininger) Butley. They are both solid Republicans and are well connected in town. He is on the brink of retiring from a job with ‘The Agency’ while she holds an important position with Lockheed Martin and has stood up to a lifetime of being looked down upon as one of the few women in a very male-centric business.
Things get going right away when Pablo comes home from work and tells his wife that he has invited the entire firm for a party at their house in just 6 days. The inside is still overflowing with cartons, so they agree to have an outdoor BBQ in their yard. Though not in as bad shape as the inside of the home, the yard will need some fast attention and TLC to bring it up to where they want it to be. They have a very cordial first meeting with the Butleys who have brought them wine and chocolate (they all love chocolate) to welcome them to the neighborhood. Somehow everything they say underlines their deep-seated stereotypical images of Latinxers in America. Soon after, the Del Valleys discover that some of Frank’s precious garden (he is yet again vying for Best Garden with the local Gardening Club the day after the BBQ) is on their side of the property line. Tania, whose gardening concepts are the exact opposite of Richard’s, passionately believes in using only plants native to the area and absolutely no pesticides. She offers to take down the unsightly chain-link fence and put in a new wooden one. The Butleys suggest Tania have the very large tree in their yard chopped down as it may become a hazard to the Del Valley’s roof. She loves the tree and he loves his garden and so the war is on and quickly escalates with each side taking bigger and bigger steps to win the fight before resolving in the last few minutes of the play.
The 4 actors entangled in this mad affair are all excellent and each carries their full share of the play. What is great about their performances is that they manage to make you like both couples. Each has flaws and at times behave rather badly. But since they are each coming from a place of intense passion and belief, you get to see and appreciate both sides of the fight. In one telling moment, Frank compares his non-native plants to immigrants, who are wrongly accused of wanting to take over. In response, Tania describes his plants as colonizers who come in and take over whether they are wanted or not. It becomes easy to see both sides of the story and how each feels that they are in the right. There are a few times that the play has the characters slip from naturalistic dialog to speeches that border on the didactic and feel more heavy handed and repetitive then they need to be. But these moments are few and fairly short and do not diminish the fun of watching these four strong performers go at it as the play revs up its engines again. Kudos also go to the 4 person gardening team (Arianna Carrillo, Allan Looney-Escobar, Raven Cheikhi-Murphy and Alex Hernandez) who come on between scenes and begin the changes to the garden by taking out the old fence, marking the positions of the new one and filling the myriad of flower pots in the yard with occasional breaks to dance to a hot tune on the radio. They add to the fun mood and serve to lighten things up after a few of the heavier moments.
Special notice must be given to the amazing set designed by Jimmy Cuomo. We get to see the contrast of the two houses and their respective backyards. The Butleys’ home and garden are very traditional, well laid out and in immaculate condition, while the home bought by the Del Valleys is a true fixer upper needing paint, plaster and patience but with great ‘bones’ and a large oak tree looming up over the houses. And as always, Moira Wilkie Whitaker’s lighting design is the perfect complement to the design.
This was the last production with Ron Celona helming the company as Artistic Director. He has brought me years of wonderful theatre experiences and he will be missed.
NATIVE GARDENS is at the CVRep and plays now through April 24, 2022. For tickets or more information visit their website at www.CVRep.org or call 760-296-2966