Karen Zacarías’ laugh-a-minute comedy Native Gardens has arrived at exactly the right time, delivering a dearly-needed burst of satire and levity to Washington, DC audiences. Director Blake Robison and a game cast grace Arena Stage with a rollicking take on assimilation, culture clashes, and the conflicted ideal of the American Dream – with a distinctly DC twist.
Native Gardens follows the young Del Valle family and their contentious relationship with their new neighbors, the Butleys. PhD candidate Tania Del Valle (Jacqueline Correa) and her attorney husband Pablo (Dan Domingues) have just moved to a stately neighborhood in Washington, DC. Their neighbors Frank (Steve Hendrickson) and Virginia Butley (Sally Wingert) welcome them with open arms, bonding over gardening and family life. But soon a discovery about the property line between their two homes kicks off a comedic feud that quickly spirals out of control.
Correa and Domingues immediately establish a winning chemistry as the lovable Del Valle family. Tania’s hippie, emotional sensibilities and Pablo’s hard-charging, lawyerly mentality prove an entertaining mix as they adjust to their new lily-white, upper crust neighborhood. Meanwhile, the gender script is flipped on the Butley family’s side of the fence. Hendrickson has a blast pushing the neurotic, garden obsessed Frank to nutty extremes, while Wingert imbues Virginia with an icy cool reminiscent of Meryl Streep’s in “The Devil Wears Prada.” When forced together, the four create a combustible – and irresistible – mixture.
At stake are intensely personal issues of boundaries, of traditions, and of ownership. How much should transplants be forced to assimilate to existing culture? And how far should the old guard bend to accommodate new arrivals? Zacarías peppers her script with timely jabs at our present whirlwind of political correctness, subtle racism, and constant misunderstanding.
Director Robison and the cast take this rich material and run with it, relishing every jab, dig, and swipe as the neighbors’ war of words escalates further and further. Fight director Aaron Preusse helps the cast memorably channel their anger into giddy slapstick that would feel right at home in a Marx Brothers movie.
closes October 22, 2017
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Set designer Joseph Tilford’s lovingly-detailed, backyard tableau is a key character in its own right. The dead leaves, worn paint, and creepy gnome festooning the Del Valle’s lawn contrasts starkly with the vibrant flowerbeds of the Butley’s manicured lawn. Tilford also gets credit for an inspired bit of mechanical ingenuity with the Del Valle’s giant oak tree. Trust me, you’ll know what I mean when you see it. The simplicity and visual power of Tilford’s understated set creates a feeling of universality that should travel well, no matter where the play heads next.
Native Gardens is a true breath of comic fresh air, at a time when DC desperately needs it. It’s a biting, perceptive, and ultimately hopeful sendup to our fraught relationships with those around us – even right next door. Beyond snappy one-liners and garden hose fights, the play challenges audiences to look beyond petty differences and rediscover our shared decency. More than ever, that’s a message worth celebrating.
Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías . Directed by Blake Robison . Cast: Jacqueline Correa, Dan Domingues, Steve Hendrickson, Sally Wingert, Guadalupe Campos, Oscar Ceville, Javier del Pilar, Christopher Rios . Technical direction: Natalie Bell . Props direction: Monique Walker . Costume direction: Joseph P. Salasovich . Sound direction: Timothy P. Thompson . Production stage manager: Jana Llynn . Produced by Arena Stage. Reviewed by Ben Demers.