Native Gardens Broaches Tough Subjects with Levity

As the saying goes, “good fences make good neighbors.” But when it comes down to deciding the placement of said fence, with someone’s prized garden at stake, good neighbors are quick to sour. Such is the premise of Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, now playing at Trinity Rep.

On the surface, it sounds light-hearted enough – and make no mistake, it is a comedy – but as tensions grow between the characters, it becomes clear that the conflict does not stop at the property line.

It is apparent before any line is spoken that the Del Valles and the Butleys are very different. The Butleys, Virginia (Anne Scurria) and Frank (Timothy Crowe), are an older white couple who have

Scurria, Crowe, Duque-Estrada, González

Scurria, Crowe, Duque-Estrada, González

been fixtures in the neighborhood for decades. The Del Valles, Tania (María Gabriela Rosado González) and Pablo (Daniel Duque-Estrada) are a young Latinx couple excited to move into their first home with a baby on the way. Further illustrating the differences is the impressive set designed by Dahlia Al-Habieli of two suburban backyards – one a cleanly manicured lawn with hydrangeas and lawn furniture, the other a patch of dirt yet to be cultivated with only an old bird bath and a single large oak tree. As the neighbors become better acquainted, it becomes clear that their differences extend beyond initial impressions and into their gardening styles. Frank aspires to win first place in the Potomac Horticultural Society’s garden contest with his pesticide-laced garden of non-native plants. Meanwhile, Tania is looking forward to starting her own native garden, filled with plants native to the region to attract birds and bees. Things go awry when the Del Valles discover that Frank’s prized garden extends over the property line. Wanting their money’s worth of land, they intend to build the fence on the property line, and there’s a narrow window of time in which to settle the border dispute, with an impending company barbecue Pablo promised to throw for the law firm at which he hopes one day to make partner.

As the conflict escalates, it becomes about more than a fence; it touches upon ageism, racism and xenophobia. It becomes about privilege and entitlement, and winning and losing. Where the analogy becomes clearest is when Frank expresses confusion over the Del Valle’s objection to his garden’s “immigrant species,” to which Pablo responds that they are “colonialist species” that come to a foreign land and destroy everything in its path.

Of the small cast, perhaps the biggest standout is González as the fiery and “passionately rational” Tania, whose transitions from calm to enraged, and from trying to be civil to incivility are so comically quick that it’s clear this is someone you don’t want to cross – something Duque-Estrada, her husband, has clearly learned, with his apologetic and reluctant way of breaking bad news to her. Likewise, Scurria and Crowe are delightful as a white older couple whose efforts not to be racist make them seem all the more racist, and who clearly don’t want conflict, but when it becomes unavoidable, no holds are barred. The cast is rounded out by a four-member ensemble who portray Latinx workers there to build the fence and start Tania’s garden.

In addition to the Latinx talent in the cast, this is also the first time Latina director Christie Vela has directed a show for the theater’s main stage – an important milestone, especially now, and with an appropriate play for the occasion: one that shows us that broaching uncomfortable subjects such as race need not be accomplished so heavy-handedly, but can be infused with comedy.

Native Gardens runs through May 6 at Trinity Rep. For tickets, call 401-351-4242 or visit trinityrep.com/show/native-gardens

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