By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
Smartly and deftly written by Karen Zacarías, Native Gardens is a dark comedy, but one that is at its very core, extremely funny. Given the particularly volatile political climate in contemporary America, Zacarías scores by highlighting specific areas where differences in cultures and age clash most.
She has honed the work even during the past two years as the Trump administration has added more comic fodder for her satiric wit.
Native Gardens highlights two couples – Washington, D.C. area neighbors – each starkly different from the other.
Randy Cheramie and Leslie Nipkow portray Frank and Virginia, the first couple. They are white, conservative and have lived in their home for decades raising one child. Living out their declining years as empty nesters, Frank spends most of his free time tending to his garden in the backyard, while Leslie still works for a federal agency. Frank is most proud of his garden work, despite the fact he always comes in second in the local gardening show to his arch nemesis.
The second couple – an upwardly mobile Latinx attorney seeking partner at a large firm and his New Mexico-born Ph.D. candidate wife – are expecting their first child. Yamil Rodriguez and Andréa Morales play the ultra liberal, iconoclastic Pablo and Tina to a fare-thee-well.
Obviously, the clash is clearly not simply over politics. It is also a clash of varying American cultures, virtues and sensibilities. Andréa points out that her ancestors were living in America well before the United States was founded. If anyone should be considered an American, she contends, it’s her.
Zacarías uses the convention of the garden itself to point out these differences too. While Frank favors what most would regard as traditional gardening, Tina prefers native, indigenous plants and loves the overhanging oak tree that drops errant leaves and acorns on what would be Frank’s award-winning garden.
When Pablo makes a spontaneous decision to invite his entire law office over for dinner at their new, but not-quite-remodeled digs, he panics. It’s then that his wife comes up with a solution. Use the backyard to host a barbeque. What could be more American that that? They offer to replace a dilapidated chain-link fence that barely marks the division in the backyard to the delight of Frank and Virginia, who have been itching to replace it. With just a short timetable, Pablo and Tina start the process in earnest when they discover the fence is actually not located at the property line. They actually own quite a bit more of the backyard, according to a survey.
As a matter of fact, the survey has the property line extended down the middle of Frank’s prized flower beds. Both couples engage in an all-out campaign, literally yielding no ground. When the garden gloves come off, the humor grows under the careful guidance of Zacarías and, as the party timetable speeds up, the two couples dig down deep with hilarious results.
This is a very funny and revealing play, which has a lot to say about differing American cultures, age division and the dynamics between younger and older couples.
In the end, it is a truly American play, which casts a non-traditional couple into the leads where they are not normally seen on stage. Zacarías also utilizes an ensemble of three Latinx workers – Hannah Guihur Colón, Anna Karina DeLage and Gabriela López – who are called upon to do the physical labor between scenes and to transform the garden.
Directed by associate artistic director Helen Jaksch, with well-rendered scenic designs by Mora, this play is marked by wonderful music compositions of popular tunes rendered in Spanish, original compositions and other sound design by Claire Marie Nemanich. Lighting is by Melissa Martinez with Ilyanette Bernabel acting as the dramaturg in the comedy.
Native Gardens plays through Sunday, November 17 at Southern Rep, 2541 Bayou Road in New Orleans. Running time for the show is one hour and 30 minutes without intermission. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. evenings Thursday through Saturday with the final matinee on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are available here. For more information call 504-522-6545.