by Mary Donofrio and Becca Jennings
They say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But what happens when your neighbors’ fence is built on your property? FST’s third show of its Mainstage Season, Native Gardens, tackles that very question in an all-out comedic battle of taste, privilege, and entitlement.
Pablo and Tania Del Valle, a young couple with their careers on the rise and a baby on the way, move in next door to retirees Virginia and Frank Butley in a Washington D.C. neighborhood. What begins as a promising friendship quickly devolves into a heated rivalry, when Tania and Pablo decide to replace the fence around their new home, and discover that part Frank’s prized English garden is actually on their land! What ensues is a ridiculous, hot-blooded feud that will leave audiences both thinking and laughing.
Inspiration can come from just about anywhere. The creative concept for this play that Broadway World called “playful and smart” was born from a dinner party conversation, which veered into the topic of neighborly drama, and brought playwright Karen Zacarías unexpected inspiration.
“It’s both primitive and absurd when you step far back and look at it. But there’s a principle at stake,” said Zacarías of neighborly conflict in an interview with DC Theatre Scene. “I started thinking about how many battles in the world could be analyzed through the lens of two couples, and that’s how I set it up.” With this framework, Zacarías was able to craft a narrative that abounds with humor and complexity.
“We all have stories and secrets about our neighbors,” said Director Kate Alexander. “And this play delightfully takes on a neighbor border dispute,which is so passionately common, and turns it into the broader border of who and what we are — how our American face is changing. Race, class, and culture clash and their ‘secret’ prejudices are revealed — all through a light touch.”
Zacarías blends the play’s social relevance and comedic flair seamlessly. “I find that humor is disarming and hopefully they will disarm themselves and laugh. I want people to think,” said Zacarías. “I think the people you end up judging the most during the play end up being those most like yourself. But no one comes out smelling like a rose in this play. It provides some food for thought about how certain things take root, and how each one of us could be a better neighbor.” These elements working in tandem allow for a frank discussion of the difficulties that arise when cultures clash.
Native Gardens has been widely produced since its inception as a commission for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Audiences in Chicago, Houston, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, and other cities around the country have enjoyed its comedic take on the issues that divide us, and what ultimately brings us together.
Actor John Thomas Waite, playing the character of Frank Butley, felt a strong connection to the play right away. “I fell in love with Native Gardens because it gently encourages us, artists and audiences alike, to re-examine our subtle, often unconscious prejudices,” said Waite. “All of the characters in the play are good hearted, but each one of them sees the world through the lens of their own preconceptions. With laughter, the play makes us think and that’s what good theatre should do.”
The cast of Native Gardens also includes Alicia Taylor Tomasko as Tania Del Valle, Alex Teicheira as Pablo Del Valle, and Carolyn Popp as Virginia Butley.