Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron
Karen Zacarías' 90-minute treatise, Native Gardens, now playing in a Cleveland Play House production at the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square, takes us on one such journey, going from cautious optimism to full blown conflict to perilous development and finally to peaceful resolution between two Georgetown neighbors.
Frank and Virginia Butley are the keystone of their well-established affluent Washington D.C. neighborhood. Frank (Wynn Harmon) has been retired for a number of years and spends his time puttering away in his flower garden with the same zeal he had when he worked for a government procurement agency. His dream is to take the grand prize in the Potomac Horticultural Association annual gardening contest, no matter how much harm it does to the environment. Virginia (Charlotte Maier) still works as an engineer for a defense contractor (a job she has fought for tooth and nail) but is on the verge of retiring.
The Butley's idyllic life style is suddenly pruned when neighbors Pablo and Tania Del Valle move in next door in a sadly neglected "fixer upper" they have great plans for. Pablo (Grayson DeJesus) comes from a very wealthy family in Chile, but he was cut off from the family fortune when he married Tania (Natalie Camunas), a Mexican American who grew up in New Mexico. In spite of this financial reversal, Pablo has managed to work his way through his last two years of college and now has been accepted by a prestigious Washington law firm. His wife is very pregnant and working on her doctorate.
At first blush things go swimmingly between the two neighbors as they feel each other out. It soon becomes apparent that the Butley's strong Republican eco-unfriendly lifestyle is in direct conflict with Tania's Democratic eco-warrior upbringing. Her plan is to transform the long neglected backyard into a bee, bug and bird sanctuary by planting native species that will attract rather than repel the critters that Frank has devoted so much time fighting against. Pablo tries to act as peacemaker but without much success. One thing the neighbors do agree on is the replacement of a hideous chain link fence that separates the two properties with a more aesthetic wooden fence.
Ladder-climbing Pablo suddenly springs on his wife that he has invited the entire law firm of sixty people (including the partners) to a backyard barbecue at their new house on Saturday, just six days away. Meanwhile, Pablo has discovered that the fence is actually twenty three inches into their property, but if they install the proposed wooden fence at the new border it will cut through Frank's potentially prize-winning garden as the annual Potomac Horticultural Association judging is scheduled for Sunday. As negotiations begin to fall apart, the garden gloves come off and a full scale war is declared by both antagonists as the hired gardeners and fencing contractors try to work as the feud escalates. Suddenly, it gets very personal and non-PC, with verbal jabs being sent in a barrage across the invisible border between the two cultures. It is only when an episode of epic ramifications happens that sanity returns.
Jason Ardizzone-West's absolutely mind-blowing stage demands recognition. It is as much a character in the play as those played by actors. The backs of two complete brownstones fill the stage from top to bottom. Tremendous care has been taken to contrast the two backyards to emphasize the conflicting cultures. Another delight is the breakdancing antics of one of the gardening crew, who does a remarkably gymnastic display during the show and at the curtain call.
With the cast, it is all about the details. Wynn Harmon as fastidious Frank is constantly sneaking a toss of errant acorns and leaves from his pristine paradise to the underdeveloped property (with its offending oak tree) from whence they came. This attitude is present throughout his carefully crafted persona. Charlotte Maier plays Frank's better half, Virginia, a self-made woman who will not stand down from a fight no matter what the cost or consequences. Grayson DeJesus is perfect as Pablo, the self-confident immigrant who has fought hard for his share of the American dream without any family help. His partner in crime Natalie Camunas as Tania, a brilliant tactician when it comes to getting her way as she mobilizes all of her power in this war of the roses.
The play is skillfully directed by Robert Barry Fleming.
Cultures and horticulture collide in this absolutely delightful range war that examines how conflicts begin and get resolved. Such subjects as American privilege and entitlement, squatter's rights, Latino influence, the American Dream, environmental impact, and what makes and breaks good neighbor relationships are carefully examined in this thoroughly entertaining work. Come to laugh, and leave having learned.
Native Gardens, through May 19, 2019, in the Allen Theatre at Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland OH. For tickets and information, visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com/, call 216-241-6000, or stop by the Playhouse Square ticket office located in the outer lobby of the State Theatre.