What do we mean by native? For Tania Del Valle, it means planting local flora in her backyard garden rather than introducing foreign interlopers. But in Karen Zacarias’s Native Gardens, the question of what or who constitutes “native” — and what or who is “foreign” — extends not just to gardens, but to neighborhoods… and even to countries.
Zacarias’s clever script, the latest offering from Off-Central Players, rings changes on any number of buzzwords. “Squatter’s rights,” “You people,” “The Man,” and any number of isms (ageism, racism, even narcissism) — they all get upended and reframed, often to comic effect.
Admittedly, it has a kind of dubious premise. Tania’s husband, Pablo, has agreed to host a backyard cookout for his law firm in six days (without checking first with his wife). As he and Tania rush to get the yard ready at their home, a fixer-upper in a tony D.C. neighborhood, they discover their land rightly includes a swath of their next-door neighbors’ property. But the neighbors — the wealthy, WASPy, older Butleys — are longtime residents who have no intention of giving up their cherished garden (definitely not “native,” except for having been planted first), and a friendly disagreement escalates into all-out war.
What distinguishes Zacarias’s play is how she subverts expectations. Yes, it’s a metaphor for a Latinx/White border dispute, but none of the characters fall neatly into stereotypes. In an initial conversation, the Butleys reveal their assumption that the Del Valles are “Mexican” — yet Pablo hails from a wealthy Chilean family that threatened to disown him when he married beneath him (in their view) to Tania, whose family comes from New Mexico.
Frank and Virginia have layers as well. Ward Smith’s Frank can be gruff and vaguely threatening, but he also lets us see the sweetness in Frank’s affection for his flower garden. Roxanne Fay shows us the steel beneath Ginny’s charming facade, a necessary combination for a woman who rose to success as a chemical engineer in a field dominated by men. (She corrects Frank when he assumes the lawyer she’s hired is a “he.”)
As Pablo, Rey Garcia embodies his character’s fierce determination, while Jade Ashlee Rivera is fully believable as the “passionately rational” Ph.D. candidate and mom-to-be Tania. She and Garcia do a nice job conveying the back-and-forth of an intellectually well-matched couple.
Thanks to snappy direction by Jack Holloway, the cast gets the laughs in Zacarias’s script and then some, with timing that works in both the all-out farcical and the quieter moments. And trust me on this: Roxanne Faye’s alcohol-fueled rant as Ginny is reason alone to see this show.
Native Gardens Seating Tips
Try to sit in one of the first two rows. Scenic designer Alan Mohney, Jr., has done a nice job conjuring up the two adjacent backyards, but the details of Frank’s carefully curated garden and Tania’s less well-groomed space are not easily visible from the rows further back where I sat. Just resist throwing yourself into the neighbor-vs.-neighbor action; Ginny wields a mean chainsaw.