Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Native Gardens
Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's reviews of Chinglish and Where Did We Sit on the Bus?

Steve Price and Janelly Calmell
Photo by Robin Jackson
According to the poet Robert Frost, "Good fences make good neighbors." It's one of his best-known quotes, and it's referenced in Karen Zacarías' play Native Gardens, which opened Friday night at the Ross Valley Players' Barn Theatre. But a few lines later, Frost continues: "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense." It is these lines that should have been far more important to the characters in Native Gardens.

The Butleys, Frank (Steve Price) and Virginia (Ellen Brooks), are longtime residents of a stately Washington, D.C. neighborhood; the Del Valles have just moved in next door. Pablo (Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez) is an attorney, the first Latino at his prestigious law firm, and Tania (Janelly Calmell) is his very pregnant wife. As it turns out, both Frank and Tania are avid gardeners, but they take very different approaches to agriculture. Tania likes a natural approach, wanting to transform their garden using only native plants designed to attract butterflies, bees, and beneficial bugs. Frank, on the other hand, cares only about winning the Potomac Horticultural Society's award for best garden, and will use any and all chemical fertilizers and pesticides to aid him in the achievement of his objective. When he hears of Tania's plan, his reaction is priceless: "You're planting weeds... on purpose!"

But it's more than their approach to gardening that causes the conflict here. It's that darn fence. For when Pablo injudiciously invites his entire firm to the new house for a backyard barbecue (with less than a week to prepare), Tania is momentarily peeved, but quickly jumps into action, hiring a fence company to replace the ugly cyclone barrier with a nice new wood barrier. Frank is at first delighted by this: he hated the old fence and had planted ivy to cover it. He's less than pleased when Tania has a close look at the property documents and discovers that Frank's lovingly-tended garden actually encroaches two feet onto the Del Valles' property.

Thus begins a comic battle royal between the old guard and the newcomers. Pablo and Tania clearly feel the strip of land is theirs, given the results of a survey. Frank and Virginia are, of course, aghast that the decades of work Frank has put into his garden will be ruined by the loss of 81 square feet he considers his. Things devolve rather quickly, with gifts of wine and chocolate replaced by threats, insults (including one very crude Spanish invective that is, fortunately for sensitive ears, never translated), recriminations, hurt feelings, and a sense of victimhood on both sides. Frank believes his new Latinx neighbors believe "...everything we value is bad. Like white rice. And Cat Stevens." Tania accuses him of being "blind to your privilege," and Frank displays his lack of cultural tolerance when he shouts at Tania's crew to stop working by shouting what seems to be the only Spanish word he knows, over and over: "Hola! Hola! Hola! Hola! Hola!"

The cast is generally excellent. Steve Price is perfectly cast (and hysterically costumed by Michael A. Berg) as the put-upon white guy who feels his world is slipping out of his grasp. His whines and shrieks are delightfully tortured, and Price has a terrific way of looking simultaneously shocked and deflated when things aren't going his way. Brooks plays Virginia with an easy air that belies a sense of brittleness acquired after years of struggle as a woman in a typically male profession (Virginia is an aerospace engineer).

Janelly Calmell has a megawatt smile and a gentle charm in playing Tania, but when the end of her fuse is reached, she can spit fire as well as any dragon. Esquivel-Gutierrez exhibits a swagger befitting his character's background (his family are uber-wealthy Chileans) and profession, but he can also show humility and a gentle nature around his wife.

Malcolm Rodgers has done a wonderful job creating the set: a pair of nearly identical brick facades, festooned with flowers on the Butley's property and the trunk of an oak tree on the Del Valle's side.

I wish Zacarías had found a somewhat less tidy way to wrap up the conflict–suddenly everyone's happy and all bows are neatly tied?–but there's enough humor and social commentary here to make for a most enjoyable 90 minutes.

Native Gardens runs through June 11, 2023, at Ross Valley Players, Barn Theatre, in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $30 general admission, and $15 for those 18 and younger. For tickets and information, please call 415-456-9555, ext. 3. or visit