THEATER REVIEW: “Native Gardens” @ Cleveland Play House by Laura Kennelly

Photos by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 5/19

“Good fences, make good neighbors”? Well, maybe not always. Karen Zacarias’s witty and abundantly funny Native Gardens, directed for the Cleveland Play House by Robert Barry Flemming, plants two contrasting families side by side in a wealthy Washington, D.C. neighborhood. As the drama grows, entwining Zacarias’s characters into battle despite their good intentions, it becomes harder to tell the weeds from the flowers.

The story begins with happy welcomes when newcomers, the ambitious young lawyer Pablo Del Valle (an earnest Grayson DeJesus) and his very pregnant wife Tania (an idealistic Natalie Camunas), first meet the neighbors, master gardener Frank Butley (a grandfatherly Wynn Harmon) and his engineer wife Virginia (a matter-of-fact Charlotte Maier). The Butleys have lived in their house for years; the Del Valles are first-time homeowners.

Both couples agree that gardens are to be cultivated and fences to be maintained. Or do they? A polite disagreement over a fence that separates the two backyards soon escalates to outright chaos as both couples surprise themselves with their own prejudices (and we laugh at the realization of our own assumptions). Meanwhile, a small crew of construction workers labor away in the background. The ensemble includes Anais Bustos and Anthony Velez. (Opening night Velez provided a bit of comic relief when he exited the stage via a series of remarkable handstands and flips.)

As contradictory and confusing as it may sound (can politics ever be funny again?), the witty Zacarias brings laughs with references to well-intentioned contemporary taboos and rules (such as don’t be regionalist, ageist, racist, sexist, etc.). As a result, and as with the very best satire (which I consider Native Gardens to be), many of us saw laughable aspects of ourselves, especially as relating to our current political passions and divisions. (At times the players had to pause so they could be heard over audience laughter.)

Scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West’s gorgeous set supplied their unlikely battleground with a simple, but brilliant design: two backyards, one an English garden, and the other an unfinished “natural” garden complete with a huge oak tree. Lighting designer Michael Boll skillfully turned night into day and back again with convincing ease. Ensemble players kept busy working in the yard and planning a fence. The beautiful wooden barrier in question, furnished by Elyria Fence Company, got special mention. (Full disclosure: I’ve used Elyria Fence too.)

BOTTOM LINE: Yes, the play is satire, but it’s not a pile of negative snark. The story seems refreshingly grounded in the author’s faith in the human capacity for love and growth. It reminds me of Voltaire’s (and Bernstein’s) Candide because at the end, it’s love that ultimately makes these D.C. gardens grow.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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