Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Amy Gonzalez
Featuring: Michael Evans Lopez, Marlene Martinez, Amy Resnick, Jackson Davis, plus Laura Espino, Mauricio Suarez
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
When: August 22 through September 16, 2018
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $40-$100. Visit https://theatreworks.org/201819-season/201819-season/native-gardens/ or call 650-463-1960.
John Orr talked with playwright Karen Zacarias and actor Marlene Martinez; read that story at https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/08/23/native-gardens-deals-with-a-lot-of-isms-in-a-hilarious-way/.
in charming, thoughtful comedy
with gentle meanings about race, class and boundaries
Curious phenomenon: During the opening night, August 25, of the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of Karen Zacarías's "Native Gardens," people applauded — several times — when something went right for some character or another on the stage.
We're not talking applause for the actors playing the characters; we're talking applause for the characters. A character wins an award — applause. A character gets a raise at work — applause.
There are four roles with dialogue in Zacarías's little comedy, and all four of the characters win a round of applause. Likely because the audience came to like them and identify with them. And maybe forgot it was all make-believe.
That is a testament to the charm and humanity of Zacarías's script, which pits two very different — yet, in their hearts, similar —couples against each other in a property-line dispute.
In "Native Gardens," a young Latinx couple, an ambitious lawyer and a pregnant woman working on her Ph.D., move into an old house in a desirable neighborhood. Their neighbors, who've been there for decades, are older. Frank Butley is a consultant who works from home and nurses his backyard garden; Virginia is an engineer for an aerospace company.
Pablo Del Valle, the young lawyer, invites 60 people from the law firm for which he works to a barbecue. He and Tania want to remove the ugly old chain link fence separating his yard from Frank and Virginia's yard, and install a nice, new wooden fence, before the guests arrive. Frank and Virginia are happy about that, until the yards are surveyed, and everybody finds out that the old fence is almost two feet into Pablo and Tania's yard, and the new fence, properly placed, will destroy some of Frank's garden. Right before judging for the garden contest.
Scenic designer Andrea Bechert's set, showing the two homes and their backyards, is beautiful and so real it essentially becomes a character in the play. Once an actor notices that Pablo and Tania's yard seems smaller than Frank and Virginia's, it becomes obvious to the eye. There is a neat lawn and lots of well-tended flowers on the Butley side; a huge oak tree and the sort of scrabbly dirt often found under such trees.
And when the workers start tearing up the flower beds, it's shocking, but also, it's hard to take sides — couldn't a compromise be reached?
Zacarías, bit by bit, works in a number of social and cultural differences between the two couples. What kind of wine Frank thinks the Del Valles might prefer. Tania wants to fix up their yard as a native garden, using plants native to the area, and encouraging insects.
"Those darn bugs!" Virginia says.
"Spiders will help with the mosquitos, you'll see," says Tania.
Michael Evans Lopez is very solid, smoothly combining Pablo's identity as an immigrant (from Chile) with a lawyer's ambition, love for his wife and a good touch with funny dialogue.
Marlene Martinez is very appealing and strong as Tania, and is excellent with the humor of Tania's occasional slides into anger, which she always regrets. Very funny stuff. Tania is from New Mexico, where her family has lived since before it was part of the United States.
Jackson Davis, a TheatreWorks veteran, is very funny and solid in his characterization of Frank, who loves his insecticides and doesn't even register Tania's objection to insecticides. Finding it hard to believe that his new young neighbors want to reclaim their property, he asks his wife, "Did you tell her that I considered voting for Obama?"
Amy Resnick, another TheatreWorks veteran, brings a steel-hard edge to the humor of her character. Virginia is a women who has fought her way up in a male-dominated industry, and woe to anyone who doesn't give her heed. Resnick is terrific.
The hottest battle, really, happens between the two women.
While it deals with some of today's hot-button topics, such as racial identity and national borders, "Native Gardens" is really a sweet, good-natured comedy, even after both sides consult lawyers and legal trickery is considered.
Perhaps that's why the audience applauds for each of the four characters toward the end of the play.
Lighting design by Steven B. Mannshardt takes us from gentle mornings to soft evenings in comfortable suburban light. Jeff Mockus serenades us with sounds of insects and birds. Noah Marin's costumes tell us who these people are.
Also on hand, in silent roles, are Laura Espino and Mauricio Suarez, as surveyors and gardeners. It is their first time on stage at TheatreWorks. I've seen Espino deliver dialogue at City Lights in San Jose, and she was terrific. It will be nice to someday see her get a meatier role at TheatreWorks.
This review is late. There are only four performances left; two today, and two on Sunday. Go see this show if you can.
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org