By Michael Buzzelli, an Irish Twin
Pablo (Juan Rivera Lebron) and his very pregnant wife, Tania (Evelyn Hernandez), are trying to lay down roots, literally and figuratively, in a swanky neighborhood in Washington, D.C., but their plans go awry when they meet their neighbors, Frank (Cotter Smith) and Virginia (Laurie Klatscher), in “Native Gardens,” by Karen Zacarias.
When the neighbors meet, the seeds of a friendship are sown. Things start off as friendly, even though generational differences, politics and and race seep through the cracks of their friendship like weeds on the sidewalk.
Frank prides himself in his almost award-winning garden (he keeps coming in second to an unseen enemy). He has meticulously maintained the green space with weed-killers and pruning shears. Tania, however, wants go wild, planting native species in her backyard, even though it will attract bugs and bees into the space. Pests that Frank has been desperately attempting to destroy to save his hydrangeas. The central conflict between the neighbors is around twenty-two inches long. Frank’s garden encroaches into Pablo and Tania’s newly surveyed land and a dispute ensues.
Frank, a dyed-in-the-red-wool Republican, has unknowingly crossed the border into Pablo and Tania’s yard, and he tries to save his garden before the contest judges come by to declare it a winner. Pablo and Tania, however, are trying to get their backyard fence up in time for a garden party with Pablo’s law firm.
Tensions mount and the backyard brawl begins to escalate, a war of words and petty battles begins (a cigarette butt becomes the butt of a joke in their skirmish). While their opinions are quite contrary, their gardens grow!
Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover
Zacarias adds complexity to a simple story about a land dispute between neighbors. It’s sharp and witty, but it’s text and no subtext. Everyone says and does exactly what their thinking. While it takes on some very substantive issues in a humorous way, it hammers them down hard like the stakes in Pablo’s new fence.
The acting is superb. Marc Masterson does another outstanding job directing, letting the cast blossom in their own vibrant colors.
Hernandez is a delight as the soon-to-be mom Tania. She’s strong and forthright without ever being a pest.
Frank’s crotchety old man is a trope, but Smith gives him nuance and vulnerability. Smith lands some great silent gags as he putters around in his garden, germinating on revenge.
Klatscher’s Virginia is so immensely likable, even when she tries to be the bad seed, sewing chaos by summoning a lawyer (Maame Danso in a silent cameo) to produce a cease and desist. Virginia is lovably awkward thanks to Klatscher’s charm.
Rivera Lebron is no wilting flower, but his costars get more time in the sun.
All of the elements align in perfection in this production.
Tony Ferrieri isn’t your garden variety scenic designer. He creates another stunning set. Half of the set is Frank and Virginia’s pristine yard, and the other is Pablo and Tania’s more rustic space. The large oak, a plot point in the play, looms majestically over the set.
Paul Whitaker’s lighting design brilliantly sets the time of day for each scene.
The show is about a minor grievance between neighbors, but in the end, compassion wins. Love wins (even for Frank and Virginia’s off-stage son).
The characters are all likable and their arguments valid. “Native Gardens” makes a strong point about seeing past our differences and being human beings together. It’s the petty squabbles that crop up on our garden path. What better way to break down barriers – than through laughter?
“Native Gardens” is not an easy plot to hoe, but it’s an important idea to cultivate.
“Native Gardens” is planted at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203, until April 2. For more information, click here.