Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by playwright Karen Zacarias’ delightfully cathartic “Native Gardens” and Cleveland Play House’s superb staging of it.
The play – first performed in 2016 by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park – may not be the cure for the xenophobia and undesirable isms that weigh down our nation of late, but bringing them into the light and reducing them to first-rate comic relief at least offers a much appreciated and very entertaining respite.
Set in a pair of bordering backyards in an historic Washington D.C. neighborhood, the play touches on the conflicted ideal of the American Dream as represented by the respective homeowners.
The conservative and soon-to-be-retired Frank (Wynn Harmon) and Virginia Butley (Charlotte Maier) have a passion for the formal English garden that he has carefully cultivated with love, generous doses of insecticide and an eye on a prize from the Potomac Horticultural Society. Pablo Del Valle (Grayson DeJesus), a Chilean lawyer, and his pregnant wife Tania (Natalie Camunas), a doctoral student in anthropology, recently moved in next door and have a preference for the giant oak that dominates their property and the native wildflowers that benefit the ecosystem and which Frank considers weeds.
Friendly, over-the-fence encounters quickly turn into a delicate disagreement over the property line that defines the boundaries of their backyards. But then the gardening gloves come off and things escalate into an all-out border war that lays bare close-to-the-surface racism, sexism and ageism.
Though the garden is more battleground than metaphor, it is not hard to see the cultural privilege and botanical imperialism represented by the English ivy, Asian azaleas, Bermuda grass and the invasive Japanese honeysuckle that, according to the Del Valles, is “the crack cocaine of the plant world” and has gross disregard for the indigenous population.
Director Robert Barry Fleming does a remarkable job not punching those punchlines too hard or giving into the temptation to capitalize on all that is so sitcom in Zacarias’ script – the conventional set up, the quick and clever repartee, its insider/outsider character types, and the short run-time (90 minutes). Instead, he serves up a smart and purposefully paced piece of theater with a warm center and appealing tenacity.
This is facilitated by Jason Ardizzone-West’s stunningly realistic scenic design that fills the performance space with the rear halves and fully-appointed backyards of a pair of two-story brick century homes, one of which is appropriately white-washed. The set is enriched by Michael Boll’s lighting and Rodolfo Ortega’s ambient sound. Long-time Cleveland Play House patrons who recall walking into the old Drury Theatre on Cedar Avenue and greeting the stage with a standing ovation will be similarly tempted.
The ensemble of seasoned actors create fully-fleshed and genuinely likable people, despite the isms that shade their worldviews. And the trio of performers (Anais Bustos, Anthony Velez and Julia Rosa Sosa) who play the gardeners that fill the scene segues with dance to the accompaniment of lively Latin music, diffuse any tension generated by the play’s politics and add a nice layer to the production’s infectious energy.
So effective is this production at transporting the audience to a kinder and gentler place, where our differences can be discussed with humor and without denigration, that the show’s soundtrack should be pumped into the lobby to help transition our departure into the real world that, unfortunately, lies in wait.