Arena Stage examines reality through the lens of gardens.
Karen Zacarías's Native Gardens, a coproduction with the Guthrie Theater, is enjoying its D.C. debut at Arena Stage. The show examines race, class, taste, and politics from the point of view of two couples who live next door to one another in the nation's capital.
The older couple, Virginia and Frank Butley, have owned their beautifully cared-for home for many years. The younger couple, Tania and Pablo Del Valle, have just moved into their home, which needs much maintenance, indoors and out. Virginia is an engineer and very direct; Frank is retired and primarily cares for his beloved garden. The very pregnant Tania is writing a dissertation; Pablo is a lawyer hoping to make partner.
Right from the start, things go wrong. Pablo foolishly invites members of his firm to a barbecue in a week, which requires a massive cleanup. Part of that cleanup includes taking down the Butley's old chain-link fence. Tania and Pablo take a bottle of wine to the Butleys, hoping they will agree that the ugly fence should come down.
Happily, they do agree, but other issues come up during the visit that make it clear that the Butleys and Del Valles live chasms apart, mentally. The Butleys assume that Tania is Mexican, while actually she hails from New Mexico. While chatting, Tania reveals what she hopes to do with their garden: to make it a place for native plants, naturally adapted to the local climate, weather, and soil conditions. Frank's garden, by contrast, is full of nonnative plants, which need pesticides and fertilizers to survive. Their two philosophies of gardening couldn't be more different. When a surveyor comes to measure for the new fence and his measurements show that the Butleys have encroached on the Del Valles' land by two feet, everything changes. The De Valles learn the amount that the Butleys' garden overlaps into their backyard is valued at $38,200.00. Being a lawyer, Pablo is delighted that he can prove that his mortgage entitles him to gain property. Frank is equally brokenhearted to learn that he will lose some of his cherished garden, so he and Virginia decide to put up a fight.
Jacqueline Correa is delightful as Tania, who is smart and not afraid to speak her mind. Whether she is telling off Virginia or dancing with the gardeners, Correa demonstrates an exuberance that feels appropriate for her character's personality. Dan Domingues is strong as Pablo, providing a solid presence as Tania's Chilean born husband who is proud of what he has accomplished in America. He is particularly funny when he realizes that the law is on his and Tania's side.
Sally Wingert is excellent as the steely Virginia, a woman who pretends to be happy to have new neighbors, but whose set attitudes toward race and class are anything but welcoming. Steve Hendrickson plays Frank as a pallid introvert, whose passion for gardening affords him all the excitement he needs. The ensemble (Guadalupe Campos, Oscar Ceville, Javier del Pilar, and Christopher Rios) are an essential part of the cast, filling out the roles of the gardeners and fence builders.
Some of Zacarías's best writing comes when she finally gets into the real issue of the play: the fact that the law is on the side of a young, up-and-coming couple instead of a rich, privileged couple who have always been entitled. Blake Robison directs the show at a dizzying pace, emphasizing the fact that the characters are caricatures of real people. Apart from Tania, the three other characters come across as cartoon figures who have been created to signify "a racist," "a snob," or "a wealthy matron."
Joseph Tilford's set is a marvelous side-by-side comparison of a neglected yard and a well-tended garden. Designer Kara Harmon's costumes fit each character: Virginia in elegant pantsuits, Pablo in expensive three-piece suits, and Tania in loose dresses and comfortable shoes.
Unfortunately, with Native Gardens, Zacarías missed an opportunity to realize the true humor that she intended. Instead, she substitutes caricatures and cartoons. That substitution detracts from the play's impact and the work fails to bloom as a comedy.