Native Gardens – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

When young couple Pablo (Keith Contreras) and his very pregnant wife Tania (Arlene Chico-Lugo) move to Washington, D.C., they buy a brownstone fixer-upper in a historic neighborhood. It’s not just the house that needs fixing, it’s also the backyard, the one with the dilapidated chain link fencing, the weeds, the huge oak tree and its falling leaves, and the lone garden gnome with its arm reaching forward as if in desperate need to pull itself out of its unkempt surroundings and into something a little more worthy of its presence. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is the neighbors, the ones with the pristine, cultivated yard that somehow looks a little wider than Pablo’s and Tania’s; the one with its manicured, richly green lawn, and the highly-organized beds of flowers with their carefully arranged array of colors, so neat, elegant, and refined they hardly look real.

When retirees and long-term homeowners Frank (Bill Geisslinger) and Virginia (Robynn Rodriguez) first meet the folks next door, everything’s cordial. A gift of a bottle of fine wine, dark chocolates, and friendly greetings go a long way. A new friendship is established, particularly when Pablo tells them he’ll be removing the eyesore of a chain-link divider in favor of a new wooden fence. That’s exactly what Frank and Virginia want. “Good fences make good neighbors,” Virginia states. But things soon sour.

When Pablo arrives home one day with the legal documents and the plan of the land he’s just purchased, he makes a sudden discovery, one that explains why next door’s yard looks that little bit wider than his. “Your flower beds are actually on our land,” Pablo tells the good neighbors with some reluctance. And they are, by almost two feet. If you count the square footage taken up by Frank’s potentially prize-winning flowers, the cash value runs into several thousand. And Pablo and Tania, not unreasonably, want their land back. But as far as Frank and Virginia are concerned, they’re not budging. From their perspective, what’s about to happen is not so much The War of the Roses but a principled Battle with the Botanical Xenophobics.

In director Jane Jones’ new play Native Gardens, now playing at Herberger Theater Center until October 21, themes of class, privilege, race, and even compromise are highlighted by means of some very funny comedy. As relationships on either side of the chain link go downhill, the humor rises. At first, it’s gentle. When Tania tells Frank of her plans for her yard, she talks of cultivating a natural environment, one without a need for pesticides and sprays; one that actually helps the planet breathe. “You’re going to plant weeds on purpose?” Frank asks. But once the problem with the overlapping land and the oncoming fence develops, the comedy escalates and the insults fly, particularly when Frank and Virginia invoke squatter’s rights. “They’re Democrats!” Virginia declares to her husband as if that clearly explains everything.

While playwright Karen Zacarías’ script hints at deeper messages – Frank and Virginia are rich, white, and privileged, while Pablo is a Chilean immigrant, and Tania is of Mexican heritage, though her family has lived in New Mexico long before the state became a state (no one crossed a border; the border crossed them) – the overall feeling is eventually one of comical lightness rather than a true examination of cultural clashes, bordering on outrageous TV sit-com. In other words, those who enjoy searching for meanings when they’re not always there may find some to discuss, though they’ll have to dig deep. But occasionally a more obvious present-day political gag rears its head. When during a heated row, Tania angrily declares to Frank and Virginia, “I’ll build a fence to keep you out,” Pablo adds, “And you’re gonna pay for it!” And in terms of race, when Pablo asks of his wife, “Do you think we’ll be out of touch when we’re their age?” “No,” responds Tania, explaining,“Because we’re not white.”

However, the overall problem with the play is not so much the danger of it evolving into something ludicrously silly, which it almost does, it’s the sides you take. As the arguments grow and the insults from both parties fly, we’re supposed to be looking at the big picture and seeing that in many ways all are at fault and the only way to solve the problem is through compromise. Yet, it’s clear, Frank and Virginia have made a mistake; both the law and what is right is on Pablo and Tania’s side.

The war of words only escalates because of how the retirees react, something made even worse when Virginia admits, “Legally they own our land.” They know they’re in the wrong. And they probably always knew it but ignored what they never wanted to acknowledge in the first place. In fact, the more central you sit in the theatre, even before the play begins you can see from Carey Wong’s excellent scenic design of the two yards and the space between the buildings that the well-cultivated garden has taken up more space than it should. With that in mind, it’s difficult to see anything from the point of view of the white neighbors no matter how Pablo and Tania behave.

The idea of compromise is always the most civilized way to go, and the four will eventually come to an agreement by way of something audiences may have an inkling is going to happen long before it actually does. And while that conclusion is perhaps, like Frank’s garden, a little too neat and tidy, Arizona Theatre Company‘s presentation of Native Gardens remains a hugely entertaining evening, with four good performances from its principal leads, backed by ATC’s always high production values.

Native Gardens continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoneix until October 21

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller

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