The old saying “good fences make good neighbors” is hilariously and heart-wrenchingly challenged in TheatreSquared’s production of “Native Gardens.”
“Native Gardens” opened Friday night after two days of previews, marking Rebecca Rivas’s TheatreSquared directorial debut. It is the first show ever performed in the Spring Theatre, the more intimate of TheatreSquared’s two new performance spaces.
Playwright Karen Zacarias’s “Native Gardens” tells the story of two next-door-neighbor families in an upscale neighborhood of Washington, D.C., their personal border dispute and the race, class and age resentments the conflict exposes. With no clear villain and no clear hero, the play explores each character’s prejudices, pain and pettiness.
Chilean immigrant Pablo del Valle, expertly portrayed by Stephen L. Reyes, is a man with something to prove. The only Latino lawyer at his high-powered law firm, he has just moved into a fixer-upper with his pregnant wife Tania (Marissa Castillo), a doctoral student. Del Valle calls himself and his wife “the American dream incarnate.”
Lauren Halyard and Bill Rogers play the elderly Virginia Butley, a Lockheed Martin engineer, and Frank Butley, a lifelong government bureaucrat. The couple has lived in their perfectly maintained red house with its expansive backyard for more than 40 years. Retiree Frank spends his days tending to a backyard garden laden with planter boxes full of peonies and hydrangeas, perfectly-manicured rose-bushes, and well-trimmed potted hedge plants. His dream is to win his local horticultural society’s gardening competition.
When the del Valles move in, the Butleys prove friendly and welcoming, if a little culturally insensitive. Tania and Frank engage in a good-natured debate about gardening philosophies, as Tania is working to turn her backyard into an environmentally-friendly “native garden” filled only with flora indigenous to the local ecosystem.
Both families agree, however, that the chain link fence separating their backyards is unsightly, and the Butleys are delighted when the del Valles offer to tear it down and replace it with a wood fence in preparation for a barbecue with Pablo’s colleagues. But when Pablo and Tania discover that the existing border fence crosses the property line and cuts into one of the yards, it sparks an epic battle that forces everyone involved to confront their most deeply buried biases.
The four-person main cast gave a captivating opening-night performance. Their acting blended near-perfect comedic timing with profound emotional vulnerability that allowed me to empathize with each character’s perspective.
The performance benefitted from a combination of slapstick and intellectual humor that drew plenty of laughs, as well as moving scenes that anyone who has struggled with cultural division would find all too real.
While the entire cast was excellent, Castillo stole the show as the intelligent and warm Tania. Her portrayal of Tania playing peacemaker between her passionate, litigious husband and the equally stubborn Butleys before finding her voice late in the second act was inspired. Castillo especially shone in her scenes opposite Halyard, as the two skilled actresses played off of one another in a volatile and powerful way.
The overall setting of the performance was key to the show’s appeal. The beautiful Spring Theatre was outfitted with tightly packed but comfortable riser seats and a performance area flush with the theater’s floor instead of a raised stage. The room’s design allowed a sense of intimacy perfect for the kind of story being told.
The Spring Theatre’s vaulted ceilings allowed for beautiful, towering set pieces more complex than what could fit in TheatreSquared’s old performance space: facades of the del Valles’ and Butleys’ houses, two starkly different backyards and a fence dividing them. The powerfully symbolic set design served almost as a fifth main character in the play.
Despite a somewhat slow first act and some minor believability issues with Zacarias’s dialogue, the show carried through to an explosive climax, a satisfying, heartwarming resolution and a well-deserved standing ovation.
“Native Gardens” is hilarious, timely, well-acted and visually stunning. It is the kind of production that reminds us that good theater can and should entertain, move and educate all at once.
“Native Gardens” runs through Nov. 10 at TheatreSquared’s new location on Spring Street.