BWW Review: NATIVE GARDENS Finds Humor in What Divides Us, at Portland Center Stage
Picture an episode of I Love Lucy where the Ricardos are young, progressive Latinx Democrats and the Mertzes are older, white Republicans. As you can imagine, they disagree about just about everything, most importantly, gardening philosophies.
In NATIVE GARDENS, an I Love Lucy-esque new comedy by Karen Zacarías now playing at Portland Center Stage, the couples are the Del Valles and the Butleys. Tania and Pablo Del Valle have just moved into an upper-class neighborhood next to Virginia and Frank Butley. The Butleys are initially thrilled to have new neighbors who are owners, not renters, until they discover that Tania subscribes to the native gardening philosophy, i.e., native species, no pesticides, and a liberal attitude toward what constitutes a weed. In contrast, Frank has spent many years cultivating his picture-perfect garden, with the help of plenty of non-native species and pesticides, in hopes of winning an award from the local Horticultural Society.
At first it seems like they might be able to get along in spite of their differences, but then Tania and Pablo discover that the old chain link fence that divides the properties isn't exactly where it should be. As it turns out, the Del Valles are the rightful owners of an area the Butleys have long thought of as part of their yard. Even so, the couples could probably work it out if it weren't for a bit of unfortunate timing - the Del Valles want to put up a nice new fence in time to host a party for Pablo's firm, but that would require digging up part of Frank's garden the day before the Horticultural Society judges are scheduled to arrive.
Cue the jokes about colonialism and entitlement. Also racism, xenophobia, sexism, ageism, and, of course, border walls.
NATIVE GARDENS works because Zacarías brilliantly avoids slipping into a polemic or painting any issue as black and white. None of the characters can be put into the ideological box it's tempting to put them in based on their demographics. Because of this, they're able to find plenty of common ground - for example, Virginia spent her career as the only woman engineer in her department at Lockheed Martin, so she understands Pablo's position as the only Latinx lawyer at the firm. Zacarías also exposes the biases we all hold, no matter how woke we think we are. Every character has their strengths and weaknesses, and it's impossible not to feel both empathy and frustration toward all of them at some point. In other words, they're only human.
The PCS production, directed by Melissa Crespo, takes the sitcom nature of the show to heart, for better and for worse. Paul DeBoy, who plays Frank, is a master of deadpan humor, and Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez, who plays Tania Del Valle, lands many of the plays best jokes. But all of the actors have a tendency to ham it up it a bit too much, which detracts from the humor that's already present in the script and makes the climax less climactic. I frequently found myself thinking that if they just turned the slapstick knob down about 20%, it would be perfect.
NATIVE GARDENS runs through June 16. More details and tickets here.
Photo credit: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory