Addison — Sometimes the fun plays are the most challenging to review, simply because it’s easy to put the critic’s hat aside and lose myself as a spectator. I am not supposed to get lost in the play, but rather keep a critical distance. This is where my best friend Karen C., my artistic and sensitive buddy who usually accompanies me to the theater, came in handy this time. Her reaction to the WaterTower Theatre production of Karen Zacarías’s comedy Native Gardens, directed by David Lozano of Cara Mía Theatre Company, took me aback.
“Sometimes theater is just too much of what it is…an artificial environment in which to communicate ideas but often ends up too damn wordy and preachy,” my friend said. We went on to further delve into what she meant by that statement considering the delightful comedy we had just seen.
Besides being a highly produced playwright, Zacarías is one of the eight co-founders of the Latino/a Theater Commons, a growing network of artists whose goal is to bring the work of Latinx theater artists front and center.
Native Gardens explores some deep issues with nuance, complexity and humor in the good and the bad, the right and the wrong. And to my friend’s point, it does this without being “too damn wordy and preachy.”
The massive, realistic set design (by Clare Floyd DeVries) of two houses and their backyards, one pristine and manicured and the other in a state of disarray, provides a clear visual framework for the plot conflict: a simple property line dispute and the socio-political issues at stake. It sets up the border issue and provides a visual field for the lateral movement of the conflict. There is a back door to each of the homes and an entry from a downstage fence.
Tania Del Valle (Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso) and Pablo Del Valle (Ivan Jasso) have just bought their first home, a fixer-upper in an historical Washington, D.C. neighborhood. Virginia Butley (Lois Sonnier Hart) and Frank Butley (John S. Davies) own the adjacent, well-kept and long-established home. An unsightly chain link fence divides the backyards. Then, on a moment’s impulse, Pablo invites his entire law firm for dinner to a house undergoing renovation, with a wife who is about to give birth and defend a doctoral dissertation. The stressed Tania suggests replacing the chain link fence with a nice wood one, and have a catered, outdoor barbecue.
Everything starts out neighborly enough between the young Latino and the WASP couple. Pablo is a young Chilean immigrant and an aspiring partner in a law firm, Tania is a New Mexico native and a doctoral candidate in anthropology. Virginia is a self-identified Polish-American contractor for a major defense company and Frank, who is just plain Anglo, is nearing retirement age and has been vying for a coveted neighborhood gardening prize for years. You guessed it: his prized, exotic plants are close to the disputed property line.
The dramatic tension follows a predictable line of escalating pitch when the two neighbors try to negotiate but become entrenched in their own side of the fence. While Tania tries to act as the peacemaker, she too gets caught up in a series of arguments that lead to discussions on race, class and privilege.
Zacarías’ writing makes for crisp, intelligent observations, the kind that often come to mind but aren’t spoken for the sake of political correctness. The notion of the native plants garden vs. the garden that brings in “colonizing” foreign plants to local environments works smartly in this regard. The topic of the native vs. foreign vegetation gives way to relevant analogies about our present xenophobic political environment. The idea that “all Latinos look alike/they are all Mexican” offers fertile ground for discussion, not only of borders but entitlement, prejudice, and land usurpation issues not only during the loss of Mexican territory with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but with Monroe Doctrine expansionism.
In his director’s note Lozano points to questions related to both home equity and racial equity, arguing that while the former is a prized value in our country, the latter is not yet a core value.
But this is a light comedy, for heaven’s sakes. Factors that contribute to the lightness and flow of the pace include a delicate balance between the heavy scenes and the ones in which the characters feel their humanity and want to back down and be neighborly.
Artistic director Joanie Schultz writes in the welcome message that she sees this piece in the tradition of Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz comedies, in which “there is a long tradition…in American comedy of contemplating the culture clash between Americans [Tania and Pablo would argue a better word would be “Unitedstatesians”] and our neighbors to the south… It takes creativity and skill to find humor in some of our touchier subjects…” She writes that she sees herself in this play.
I did too, as a Latina theater scholar, a new fixer-upper homeowner (with a chain link fence!), and newbie organic gardener. So did my friend Karen, a blonde Italian-American vegan who is also a native-plants enthusiast. We, along with the audience, who seemed to range in age and ethnicity like that of the characters, found ourselves freely laughing at touchy issues proposed on both sides of the fence. Humor may just be that healing salve that allows us to see and laugh at ourselves, and—why not?—laugh at each other. And while the conflict does not reach a resolution neither in the dramatic or political sense, this play at least offers a cease fire, which favors the humanity in us all when it comes to cherishing life.
The ease and comfort with which these two couples are portrayed helps.
Sonnier Hart has the right amount of spunk, and Davies’ charm makes us believe how important that darn garden is to him. The Jassos come across as an everyday, upwardly mobile couple, with the distinction that Tania is a feminist, constantly reminding everyone of the slippery places where we take gender for granted. These four actors bring these people to life without a drop of excess theatricality.
The sound design by Kellen Voss includes relevant music, ranging from Frank Sinatra to Latin rock. The music that accompanies the fence workers is smart. Lighting design (Dan Shoedel) seamlessly flows with the pace and transitions of the plot. Giva Taylor’s costume design fits within the framework of everyday life, unaffected by the artifice of the stage.
I have seen Lozano direct the relatively young ensemble of the Cara Mía Theatre Company, where the Jassos are regulars, many times. It was a fresh break to see him direct older, more seasoned actors Sonnier Hart and Davies.
Native Gardens brightens the summer theater season.
» Teresa Marrero is Professor of Latin American and Latinx Theatre in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is also a proud steering committee member of the Latinx Theatre Commons.