Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Native Gardens
Arizona Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Rabbit Hole and Waitress

Keith Contreras, Arlene Chico-Lugo, Bill Geisslinger,
and Robynn Rodriguez

Photo by Tim Fuller
Karen Zacarías' Native Gardens is an appealing, topical comedy that humorously pokes fun at a wide range of subjects, including racism, gender issues, the class divide and ageism, while also smartly making the point that compromise is sometimes the best option when it comes to tackling our differences. While Zacarías expertly focuses on both sides of many current, hot button topics, she has also crafted a very witty and incredibly charming play. Arizona Theatre Company presents the Arizona premiere in a gorgeous production with a talented cast who get plenty of laughs while creating endearing characters.

The play is set in the backyards of two very different adjoining townhouses in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, which are on full view when you come into the theatre. On Carey Wong's gorgeous set design, you immediately notice on one side of the stage the well-kept yard with an abundance of colorful flowers in bloom and well-trimmed grass while the other yard is run down, like the house it's attached to, with numerous weeds, leaves and pine cones strewn about and a tired looking chain-link fence that separates the two yards.

A young Latino couple, Tania and Pablo Del Valle, have recently bought the fixer-upper with plans to spruce up the house. Next door, the older white couple, Frank and Virginia Butley, who have been residents in the neighborhood for years, are at first happy their new neighbors have moved in, since the house that Tania and Pablo bought was previously a neglected rental property. But a series of events, which starts when Tania announces she plans to plant in the backyard a "native" garden which would only include indigenous plants, a direct opposite of the Butley's English style garden, sets in motion an all-out war between these neighbors.

Zacarías creates characters who are likable, even though none of the four is ever entirely right, and she keeps the stakes high with ever-mounting obstacles in the escalating war on both sides of the fence. While Tania and Pablo are legally in the right concerning the main issue that fuels the tiff, which I'm not giving away since it's a bit of a spoiler, Zacarías makes you understand, and actually feel for, where Bill and Robynn stand on the matter. Like a good tennis match between two equal opponents, the dialogue smartly paints the many opposing views and beliefs the foursome feels, which makes you finding yourself siding with one couple only to find yourself minutes later in the other duo's court, and the conversations, debates and fights are all well paced. After a hilarious and comically frenzied section, the ending, which is full of warmth, brings a perfect and realistic resolution to the matter.

While on the surface you could say that the two couples first appear to be a combination of many stereotypical elements, there are additional layers that Zacarías adds to each of them that make them not only realistic, and the opposite of stereotypes, but also entirely relatable. The cast, under Jane Jones' upbeat, fresh, fun and inspired direction, infuse the two duos with natural charm. As Tania and Pablo, Arlene Chico-Lugo and Keith Contreras are warm and enthusiastic while also being a bit too presumptuous of the views of their older, white neighbors. Bill Geisslinger and Robynn Rodriguez, as Frank and Virginia, are, at first, charming and loving, while also projecting hints of entitlement and superiority. None of the characters go completely unscathed in the 90-minute, one-act play, and the quartet of actors all embrace their characters' beliefs, faults and foibles with vigor.

There have been plenty of explosive theatrical dramas that focus on the ongoing racial divide in our country, yet Zacarías wisely uses racial issues as a catalyst for humor instead of heartache to prove that you don't always have to have despair and strife to have an impact, and teachable moments don't have to be preachy to prove a point. Native Gardens shows that in a divided country, tolerance, compassion and compromise are sometimes the key to bridging the gap between divisive parties.

Native Gardens, through October 21, 2018, for Arizona Theatre Company, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 602-256–6995.

Director: Jane Jones
Scenic Designer: Carey Wong
Costume Designer: Deborah Trout
Lighting Designer: Andrew D. Smith
Sound Designer: Brian Jerome Peterson
Casting: Stephanie Klapper, CSA
Dramaturg: Tiffany Ana López
Stage Manager: Bruno Ingram*
Assistant Stage Manager: Glenn Bruner

Tania Del Valle: Arlene Chico-Lugo*
Frank Butley: Bill Geisslinger*
Pablo Del Valle: Keith Contreras*
Virginia Butley: Robynn Rodriguez*
Ensemble: Victor Arevalo, Jordan-Kerry Mitchell, Christian M. Nicholas, Sonia Rodriguez-Wood

*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.

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