BWW Review: NATIVE GARDENS Bloom at Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Written by Karen Zacarías, Directed by Giovanna Sardelli; Scenic Designer, Alexis Distler; Costume Designer, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Designer, Karen Perlow; Sound Designer & Original Music, Daniel Erdberg & Ursula Kwong-Brown; Prop Master, Brendan Conroy; Production Stage Manager, Maegan Alyse Passafume
Performances through October 7 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
Merrimack Repertory Theatre opens it 40th anniversary season with Native Gardens, #8 on American Theatre magazine's list of the top 10 most-produced plays of 2018-2019. With a dozen theaters mounting Karen Zacarías' delightful tale that pits a millennial, Latinx couple against a white, baby boomer couple, across a shared backyard fence, my prediction is that there will be lots of happy patrons debating the definition of good neighbors after seeing this show. To complicate matters, all four are basically good and decent people, just like us, but circumstances change. When they are tested and show new colors, are they a temporary aberration or their true ones?
Native Gardens is a lighthearted comedy with some heavier threads woven through for just the right amount of heft. It takes place in the present day in the tony Georgetown section of Washington, DC, so there are some well-placed political remarks, such as casting aspersions at Democrats and Republicans, but it is not, by and large, a political play. There are also some off the cuff stereotypical comments and assumptions made about hispanics, but it is not a racial polemic. In fact, the two couples spar with greater passion about their differences in gardening styles, which is partly due to a generation gap, and eventually come to blows over a property line dispute.
MRT regular Joel Colodner (Frank Butley) and Navida Stein (Virginia Butley) are the boomers whose yard is lovingly landscaped with mature plantings. Frank is a persnickety gardener who takes great pride in his showplace, even entering it in an annual contest. He has never won, but thinks this might finally be his year. Virginia works at Lockheed Martin, admires and supports Frank's avocation, and often puts her mouth in gear before her brain. They welcome their new neighbors with open arms, red wine, and dark chocolate, happy to have new owner/occupants after a period of instability next door.
Vivia Font (Tania Del Valle) and Gabriel Marin (Pablo Del Valle) are a pair of fresh faces at MRT, as well in the Georgetown neighborhood. Tania (like the actor playing her) is very pregnant and working on her dissertation, even as she is trying to fix up the house. Pablo is an attorney in a prestigious firm, trying to make a good impression. He spontaneously invites everyone from work to a barbecue in his yard six days hence. Although she isn't too happy about it, Tania goes into tactical mode to plan the event and arrange for landscaping. While looking over a plot plan, Pablo notices a discrepancy and hires a surveyor who confirms that part of the Butley's garden is actually on the Del Valle's land. Needless to say, problems ensue.
Director Giovanna Sardelli draws memorable, yet relaxed, performances from her quartet of actors and does a superb job of pacing the action, gradually whipping everyone into a frenzy as the conflict builds and the two couples take to their battle stations. Colodner morphs from a gentle soul into a tantrum-throwing toddler, while Stein's sweet personality turns sour and vindictive in a hurry. Marin's character is like many sitcom dads, floundering around while waiting for their wives to save them. Lucky for him that Tania is a smart multi-tasker, but she also tries to keep the peace. Font deeply embraces the character, making her the most likable of the bunch.
Scenic designer Alexis Distler's side by side townhouses evoke the closeness of the physical space shared by the two couples. The Del Valle's yard is a scruffy patch of dirt, but distinguished by a towering oak tree. The Butleys have a lush, green hedge, colorful flowers, and a brick patio with wrought iron furniture. Kudos to prop master Brendan Conroy. Karen Perlow provides varied lighting effects to differentiate times of day, as well as to draw focus from one yard to the other. Daniel Erdberg and Ursula Kwong-Brown share the credit for sound design and original music, most notable when two landscape guys (Zachariah Gonzalez, Jeomil Tovar) show up with their boombox blaring as they do their work. Costume design is by Miranda Kau Giurleo.
Native Gardens is well-crafted, balancing its comedy and conflict without going overboard on either. The beauty of it is that you barely notice that it is making points about race, culture, and privilege because it is a skilled production that never loses sight of the importance of entertaining the audience. Zacarías is already one of the most-produced playwrights in the country. Let's hope that Merrimack decides to keep that string going and bring more of her work to the Lowell stage.