“Good fences make good friends” in TheatreWorks’ ‘Native Gardens’

By Ande Jacobson

The regional premiere of a crisp, new Karen Zacarías play is the latest TheatreWorks production. Native Gardens is a very topical take on just what it means to be a good neighbor when a young couple moves into an old, established Washington, DC neighborhood. This tight, 90 minute production, presented without intermission, covers many of the issues facing the U.S. today through an extended interaction between neighbors starting with the best of intentions. Initially welcoming and friendly, the old neighbors meet the new neighbors. Over the course of the play, an intense backyard drama ensues over the position of the fence dividing the two properties. The dispute takes on monumental proportions and serves as a microcosm of the country, and perhaps even the world at large as the Butleys fight for the status quo on their side of the fence, while the Del Valles challenge their long-held views of their neighborhood, their culture, and their property’s borders. The story is at turns gentle, humorous, contentious, and thought-provoking, challenging audiences to perhaps consider a neighborly border dispute in a new light. Zacarías penned the story in 2015, and it has increased in its societal relevance ever since.

The audience learns at the outset that Pablo Del Valle (Michael Evans Lopez) is an attorney, and his wife Tania (Marlene Martinez) is a PhD candidate working on her dissertation in anthropology. They have just moved into the neighborhood, and they are also expecting their first child very soon. Frank Butley (Jackson Davis) is a consultant, though the audience never finds out what exactly he consults about. Virginia Butley (Amy Resnick) is a senior level Lockheed engineer. Though initially irrelevant, the racial and national differences come to light as the story unfolds. Pablo is a Chilean immigrant, while Tania is a native born, U.S. citizen of distant Mexican descent. The Butleys are descendants of European immigrants from opposite sides of the tracks – he from a wealthy New England Blue Blood line; she from a blue collar family of Polish lineage. To try to diffuse some of the tension, Pablo points out that all four of them are “Americans” given they are all from the Americas, but he is Chilean, and with a smile he points out that the other three of them are “Estado Unidense: United Statesean,” a distinction slightly lost on the Butleys. They soon discover some commonality through gardening, except that Frank’s garden is pristine, but foreign; whereas, Tania wants to plant a native garden using all indigenous plants to be more in tune with the environment, and so begins a minor aesthetic disagreement.

The Del Valles want to replace the fence separating the two backyards which the Butleys heartily support. This leads to a major dispute when the Del Valles discover that their property line is actually two feet into the Butleys’ yard, smack dab in the middle of Frank’s prized flowerbed. The Del Valles claim is based on their mortgage document and a subsequent survey they have done to determine where the new fence should go. From there things get really convoluted with a lot of finger pointing, threatening of lawsuits, and ethnic accusations. Eventually, following an emergency, the story resolves neatly, perhaps a little too neatly, but that too is instructive.

The setting is current time. Andrea Bechert’s scenic design captures the look and feel of a DC neighborhood in a stunning unit set. The backs of the houses have all the pertinent details of two homes in that region. The window shades are drawn with light shining through them. The brick facades, one pristine, the other well worn, look authentic. The yards are as different as they can be. The Butleys’ lawn is perfect with symmetric, award quality flowerbeds, while the Del Valles’ yard is shabby, comprised mostly of dirt with leaves and acorns from the giant oak tree near their back door. The tree is a masterpiece of stagecraft. A dilapidated cyclone fence separates the two yards, and it is obvious that the line favors the Butleys.

Director Amy Gonzalez keeps the action moving with this small, ensemble cast. As written and acted, unspoken vignettes advance the story during the scene changes, such as Frank spraying his garden with insecticide, and the surveyors marking the actual property line. In addition to the two neighboring families, three ensemble members support the story with some surprisingly vivid, and sometimes very funny non-verbal interactions. Only two of the three ensemble members have program credits, but the landscaping crew clearly works better with the three of them schlepping wood and plants into the Del Valles’ yard.

All four principals bring a lot of emotion and energy to their performances. Lopez and Martinez are particularly appealing. Both portray well-educated, articulate characters that have a great rapport with one another as a very convincing young couple just starting out. They banter playfully together, and they both bristle at the jabs from their neighbors. By contrast, Resnick and Davis play a slightly less smitten couple more stereotypically stuck in their societal niche. They play older characters, and Virginia has a knack for being simultaneously solicitous yet judgmental which Resnick pulls off with aplomb. Davis’ delivery is more cantankerous and slightly stilted, adding the appearance of age in his bearing. Even in the heat of their dispute, the neighbors aren’t malicious toward each other, and humor still permeates the situation.

The play covers issues of race, social position, privilege, identity, and boundaries. The final resolution is a little abrupt and too easily ties things up in a neat little box. Still, the story brings home that despite their differences, people really have more in common than meets the eye. The performance goes by quickly and is worth a look. The play is part of a season that is designed to amplify and examine our current times in compelling ways. If only real life could learn more quickly from art and take root much like Frank’s and Tania’s gardens.

What:  Native Gardens, by Karen Zacarías

Where:  Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View

When:  Continues through 16 September 2018

See Native Gardens, email boxoffice@theatreworks.org, or call (650)463-1960 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/TheatreWorks)

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