BWW Review: The New Play NATIVE GARDENS is a Comedy with a Conscience - Funny and Topical
"I think comedy is disarming. I mean literally. You let down your armor so you can laugh. And if you laugh, you're taking things in. I want people who disagree to watch this play and be able to laugh at themselves." Mission accomplished. The new play NATIVE GARDENS by Karen Zacarías (from whom this quote comes), now playing on the Guthrie proscenium stage, accomplishes this and more. Through the lens of neighbors disagreeing about a fence, she exposes our many prejudices, fears, and defenses. Everyone in the audience can recognize themselves and the prejudices they harbor, or the ones they've faced, and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. The two couples in the play are on opposite sides of many issues, but through this dispute they eventually come to realize that despite their differences they both want the same thing - a nice yard to live in and friendly neighbors.
Frank and Virginia Butley (played to perfection by Twin Cities favorites Steve Hendrickson and Sally Wingert) have lived in this upscale DC neighborhood for decades and are nearing retirement age. They're pleased to welcome new neighbors and expectant parents Tania and Pablo Del Valle (equally wonderful out-of-towners Jacqueline Correa and Dan Domingues) to the fixer-upper next door. All is perfectly pleasant between them, despite the Butley's awkward assumption that the Del Valles are Mexican (they're not - he's from Chile and her family has lived in New Mexico for generations) and Tania's descriptions of her plans to plant a native garden that is much more environmentally friendly than Frank's pretty and pristine flowers. The pleasantness dissipates when the Del Valles tear down the ugly chain link fence between the two yards and start to build a new wooden fence, in preparation for a party to impress Pablo's law firm colleagues. While the Butleys are happy about the new fence, they are not happy when it's discovered that the Del Valles' property actually extends two feet into Frank's prize (or honorable mention) flower beds. The disagreement over land, borders, and gardening turns ugly as each side refuses to give up what they believe is rightfully theirs. But ugly in a funny and yes, disarming way, as director Blake Robison keeps the tone of the humor just right, never descending into mean or uncomfortable territory.
When so much focus, and even the title of the play, is on the gardens, the visual representation of them is important, and Joseph Tilford's scenic design is spot-on. From my season seat in the front row just left of center, I was at eye-level with the Del Valles' "work in progress" yard, littered with leaves and sad-looking plants. Just to my right was what looked like a display from the Dayton's, I mean Macy's, flower show - brightly colored neatly ordered flowers on a perfectly green lawn. The identical in structure houses reflect a similar trend - the Del Valle house showing its age, the Butley house trim and proper. As the play goes on the yards change as fences and plants are dug up and new things brought in.
The costumes really tell you who these people are. Lawyer Frank and engineer Virginia are in sharp expensive looking suits, while work-from-home Frank is dressed in casual sweaters and lounge-wear, and pregnant finishing-her-dissertation Tania wears an array of adorable and comfy maternity wear (costume design by Kara Harmon). Another detailed element of the design is the sound - listen closely to the music played during scene changes, songs very appropriate to what's going on (sound design by Scott W. Edwards based on original sound design by Joe Payne).
This play is feel-good without being treacly, bitingly funny without being offensive, in a way that feels like a balm to our nation's divided and hostile soul. The playwright suggests that the play can be "a tool for being able to start different kinds of difficult conversations about class, about race, about taste and about ways of coming around for social justice and civility." If we can all laugh at ourselves, laugh with our neighbors, and realize we're not really that different, maybe we'll be OK. At least for the enjoyable 90 minutes spent in the NATIVE GARDENS.