A Misplaced Fence Unmasks Hilarious Tension In ‘Native Gardens’

Well, you know what they say, right? It’s all good fun until a hydrangea loses its roots.  

To introduce the show now playing at Gablestage in its most basic sense: Native Gardens is a play that revolves around a dispute between neighbors over the potential placement of a fence meant to divide their gardens. But before I contemplate the absurdity of finding myself close to tears at the conclusion of a play about a garden dispute, I suppose I should explain that the show’s true subject could perhaps be more accurately described as the joy that can be found when the sense of common humanity overcomes the surface obstacles to understanding. 

What obstacles might those be? Well, even before Tania Del Valle and Pablo Del Valle found themselves in a no-holds barred battle over 2 square feet of yard with their next door neighbors the Butleys, the attitudes of the latter during their “friendly” gathering for wine and chocolate still reveal a definite barrier. 

Notably, the Butleys are also in their sixties to the Del Valles younger twenties. But this significant generation gap doesn’t excuse the fact that Frank, for instance, calls Tania a “senorita,” assumes the couple are both Mexican (when Pablo is actually Chilean and Tania an American of Mexican descent) and hallucinates a Spanish accent that Tania knows she doesn’t have.  

Photo Credit: Magnus Stark

It’s never fun to be othered; and as their well-meaning but clearly microaggressive remarks reveal, the Butleys see the Hispanic Del Valles as very much separate from them in terms of ethnicity; and a preliminary debate about the place of “unsightly” native plants further illuminates a key difference in overall philosophy.

Though both couples are big fans of gardening, they go about the hobby in entirely different opposing ways. Tania, who is also heavily pregnant and attempting to finish her PHD, is a believer in native gardening, and only plans to include plants that naturally serve the environment of the show’s New England setting.

Frank, whose own passion extends into a “friendly rivalry” with another neighbor for their local garden club’s annual awards, is more concerned with the aesthetics of his plant selections, often choosing beautiful invasive species that have a devastating effect on the environment around them. 

Photo Credit: Magnus Stark

It’s not, of course, that the couple actually meant any harm; but as they eventually admit in another context, they never needed to notice the harm they were causing. The context in question being the fact that, much as they unthinkingly introduced predatory plants to their ecosystems, they have unthinkingly maintained possession of a stretch of yard that actually belongs to the Del Valles. 

The Del Valles discover this when, in preparation for an upcoming garden party to which fledging lawyer Pablo has impulsively invited his entire firm, the couple make plans to tear down their unsightly current fence in order to erect a new one. 

But when the Butleys are unwilling to relinquish the stretch, given that it is occupied by the aforementioned hydrangeas as well as a variety of other plants too exotic to sacrifice before the big competition, the epic battle that ensues between the two couples more or less occupies the rest of the play. Luckily, that battle is far more entertaining and enlightening than your typical neighborly botanical scuffle. 

Photo Credit: Magnis Stark

Though, as a liberal millennial, my allegiances fell naturally towards the Del Valle view of the yard, Zacharias does a decent job of painting both sets of neighbors as at least understandable and even often sympathetic despite the eventual extremes both couples’ behavior escalates to. 

You can almost believe Frank and Virginia’s insistent assertion that they’re the underdog, poor put upon seniors advocating for their vulnerable plants, even absurdly invoking squatter’s rights to do so, as they remain ostensibly in the wrong. 

And by allowing the racial, class, and generational differences between the two couples to serve as mere subtext for a farcical debate over the fate of a few flowers, she also enables the audience to consider these issues without recoiling from the seriousness or ugliness of the underlying isms. I didn’t miss the significance of Pablo’s potential promotion, meaning a Latin name like Del Valle would finally appear next to two conspicuously white ones, or his description of himself as the “American Dream- incarnate.”

Yet as fertile a metaphor Zacharias has found in the play’s central one, there was a sense in which the protracted debate outstayed its metaphorical welcome, at times growing more heavy handed rather than green thumbed. But any weaknesses inherent in the conceit were well-disguised by all the talent that went into this particular production. 

A fiercely funny quartet of performers bring the characters to life, both making them human and believable and amping up the insanity effectively as matters became more extreme. Relative newcomer to the SoFlo scene Kevin Cruz and longtime standout Diana Garle nail their portrayals of Pablo and Tania, as do veterans David Kwiat and Barbara Sloan as Frank and Virginia. 

Photo Credit: Magnus Stark

A lush set overflowing with wildlife made possible by scenic designer Frank J. Oliva and plant designer Victoria Murawski is a stunning backdrop to the play’s events as they unfold. And director Victoria Collado’s expertise was on display throughout the evening, especially during some impressionistic between-scene interludes that amounted to comedic brilliance. 

In the end, Native Gardens is both an engaging comic romp and a kind of parable about the changing times, with the moral of the story that very different sorts of plants and of people can ultimately learn to live in harmony. So, branch out. Say hi to your neighbor. Just don’t, god forbid, think about messing with their lawn. And, in the meantime, if you feel like joining this fanciful garden party of a play, you have the rest of this weekend to do so! 

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *