by LISSI CORBETT
The Guthrie Theater’s production of Native Gardens, a topical and often hilarious new play written by Karen Zacarías and directed by Blake Robison, is “not about flowers,” as one of its characters asserts, “it’s about principles.” In a mere 90 minutes, Native Gardens confronts some of the most salient and complex sociopolitical issues of our time–but makes us laugh, too.
Gardens have always reflected much more than mere aesthetic taste, so it is no surprise that in Native Gardens what begins as an amicable disagreement between neighbors about gardening techniques becomes a heated dispute about property lines that unearths conflicts surrounding race, class, generational differences, and immigration.
But I promise, it’s funny.
The audience immediately notices scenic designer Joseph Tilford’s striking set: two historic Georgetown rowhouses. To the left, a “fixer-upper” in mild disrepair with an untended backyard and a kingly, craggy oak tree. To the right, an immaculate bastion of privilege with a carefully curated (and chemically enhanced) flower garden.
The “fixer-upper” to the left is owned by a young professional couple new to the neighborhood, Pablo and Tania Del Valles. Pablo (Dan Domingues), is an aspiring partner at a large DC law firm, and Tania (Jacqueline Correa) is a Ph.D student working on her dissertation and about to have their child. Their neighbors, to the right both physically and ideologically, are the Butleys, Virginia (Sally Wingert) and Frank (Steve Hendrickson). The Butleys (their last name an obvious and comical nod to a certain scion of conservatism), are wine-swilling Baby Boomer WASPS, representatives of the Old Guard holding fast to the privileges to which they have long felt entitled. Virginia is a retired engineer for Lockheed Martin and Frank a long-time member of what he dubs “The Agency.”
The cast skillfully plays their characters both sympathetically and comically. Virginia (Sally Wingert) is an upper class sophisticate with a throaty laugh that hints at her working-class roots; Frank (Steve Hendrickson) is a sensitive, flower-loving Republican curmudgeon who “considered voting for Obama”; Tania (Jacqueline Correa) is at once righteous, down-to-earth, judgmental (though she certainly wouldn’t say so herself), and empathetic; Pablo (Dan Domingues) is unapologetically ambitious, a little goofy, and from a Chilean family even more blue-blooded than the Butleys.
As the events of the play unfold, the audience soon realizes that both couples, though ostensible opposites, are in fact similar. Both value social status. Both seek control over their environment. Both are well-meaning. Both are, at times, very, very ridiculous.
Indeed, Zacarías ensures that all of us in the audience laugh not just at each other and the characters, but also at ourselves and our own pretensions. Yes, there are many outright farcical moments (one that includes a chainsaw and a garden hose), but these moments, ultimately, make us think. Native Gardens is a thoroughly accessible play, alienating no one in the audience, while (albeit gently), revealing the parts of ourselves we might like to keep out of our cultivated personas.
The play ends happily–but it could have gone other ways, as the characters admit. In fact, it might be just a little too tidy and too optimistic. Many complexities are glossed over. For example, Pablo mentions briefly that he has learned what it feels like to be racialized and marginalized for the first time as an immigrant to the United States. I wonder: will he ever really be allowed access to the cultural privileges that the Butleys enjoy as white “native” New Englanders? And while Virginia, who we learn is not a native of her social class, was accepted into Frank’s rarified WASPY world, Tania will always be considered an interloper in her own country (always asked, “where are you from?”) because she’s a woman of color. The Del Valles will have to compromise to get ahead–but will the Butleys really have to cede much territory? The walls protecting white privilege still stand strong.
But then again, as Robert Frost wrote in “Mending Wall,” “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/ That wants it down.” Although it is true that we need art to show us stark realities, we also desperately need ideals to aspire to. We need to be reminded of the better angels or our nature. At the end of the play, we hear the Pharrell Williams song “Happy” (the sound adroitly designed by Scott W. Edwards), which implores us to “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth/Clap along if you know what happiness is to you/Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.” This can end happily, Native Gardens seems to suggest, if we want it to.
The ensemble also includes Pedro Juan Fonseca (Guthrie: debut) and Reyna Rios (Guthrie: debut) as cast. The creative team for Native Gardens includes Joseph Tilford (Scenic Designer), Kara Harmon (Costume Designer), Xavier Pierce (Lighting Designer), Scott W. Edwards (Sound Designer), Joe Payne (Original Sound Design), Lucinda Holshue (Vocal Coach), Jo Holcomb (Dramaturg), Michele Hossle (Stage Manager), Jason Clusman (Assistant Stage Manager) and AnaSofía Villanueva (Assistant Director).
Native Gardens begins July 15 and continues through August 20, 2017 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. Single tickets start at $15 for preview performances and are now on sale through the Box Office at 612.377.2224, toll-free 877.44.STAGE, 612.225.6244 (Group Sales) and online at guthrietheater.org