“Native Gardens” blossoms with conflict and comedy at Florida Studio Theatre.
Americans love their lawns. Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens” makes the Great American Lawn a microcosm of our nation’s ambivalent immigrant experience. Her satire is now in bloom at Florida Studio Theatre.
The action unfolds in an upscale, predominantly white, suburb of Washington DC. On stage, you see a rearview of two old houses. (Another applause-worthy set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay.) Stage right: a prim and proper courtyard with a tidy, fussy garden. Stage left: A sprawling mess of weeds under the shade of a majestic oak tree.
A young, married Latino couple moves into the fixer-upper. Pablo Del Valle (Alex Teicheira), is a successful lawyer and a Chilean immigrant; Tania (Alicia Taylor Tomasko) is an expectant mother, a doctoral candidate, and born in New Mexico. (Tania’s as American as John Wayne, though bigots assume otherwise.) Their new older neighbors, Frank and Virginia Butley (John Thomas Waite and Carolyn Popp), are healthy, wealthy and white. (His ancestors came from England, hers from Poland.) They’re semi-retired, with plenty of time on their hands. As Voltaire recommended, Frank cultivates his garden. The Butleys also cultivate a friendship with their new neighbors with wine, chocolate and witty conversation. What could possibly go wrong?
The lawn, of course.
To impress his law firm colleagues, Pablo plans a backyard barbecue, which necessitates a backyard cleanup. Tania plans a “native garden” of mid-Atlantic plants. (In stark contrast to the florid flowers of Frank’s invasive species.) Ah, but bad fences make bad neighbors. Here, the culprit is an old, ugly chain-link fence dividing the two lots.
Workers installing the Del Valle’s new fence make a startling discovery: The old fence is in the wrong place! A two-foot strip of the Butleys' property (and a chunk of Frank’s prized garden) rightly belongs to the Del Valles. This revelation sparks a border dispute, which quickly escalates to stop-orders, threats of lawsuits and the invocation of squatters’ rights. Happily, no blood is spilled. (I won’t spoil the happy ending. But there is one. )
Kate Alexander’s direction is more puckish than peevish. The tone is more “What fools these mortals be” as opposed to “This is an outrage!”
Tomasko’s Tania is the hub around which the play revolves. She’s a giver of life and common sense — an earth mother, but no airhead. After all, she’s carrying a fetus and writing a thesis at the same time! Tania’s used to being underestimated and misidentified as an immigrant. That doesn’t mean she puts up with it. Teicheira’s Pablo is brilliantly analytical. The law is an equation. Do the math, that’s all there is to it. But logic has its border, as he quickly discovers. Waite is unstoppable as the lovable (occasionally unlovable) curmudgeon. A great comic performance, though his accent is a tad too close to Lionel Barrymore’s character from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Popp portrays a nuanced character with Polish heritage and unpolished bluntness. Who decided that she’s “White?” Did she miss the meeting?
The territorial imperative inspires ugly behavior. But bad behavior makes for good comedy. You get that in spades here. But Zacarias is aiming for something higher. There are no bad people in her play. Or stupid people.
But smart, nice people get into ugly fights all the time. Especially over land. Even more so when that land defines who they are.
As Bugs Bunny once said, “Of course you know, this means war.”
How do you get from that to …
“Come, let us reason together?”
Zacarias’ bright comedy is rooted in that thorny question. She ducks the question with what amounts to a miracle.
But kudos for asking the question in the first place.
Expect an evening of laughs, but no cheap laughs. This first-rate production flows from a smart, well-written script. If anything, the slick perfection on the page is the play’s only flaw. The characters lines’ often feel like one-liners. As if a multicultural cast of comedy writers was hurling scripted barbs at each other.
The verbal pyrotechnics don’t distract from the heartfelt story. Zacarias is a Latina playwright. For her, the conflict’s clearly close to home. Despite (or perhaps because of) that personal stake, she never takes the easy way out. No cheap shots, cardboard characters or tidy lessons.
Zacarias even dares to be counterintuitive. She titles her play “Native Gardens.” You’d expect the rich, white neighbors to be the nativists when it comes to plants. Actually, it’s the other way around. The Latinos are the fans of all-American flora. Her symbolic point?
She doesn’t hit you over the head with it. But I think I know.
“Native Gardens” can be lovely for plants — but never for people.
When it comes to human beings, we’re all invasive species.