We all have them: neighbors. Consequently, we all have neighbor stories—and most likely, neighbor disputes. Lights shining into windows; dogs barking too early, too late, or too much; cats hunting and pooping; too much noise; overhanging tree limbs. The list goes on and on.
But there’s nothing like a good fight over a property line, especially if a fence is involved. Now, add in race, class, privilege, upward mobility, and a fastidious English garden replete with pesticides versus an indigenous oak tree and native plants, and you’ve got “Native Gardens,” now playing at the Guthrie Theater through August 26.
Written by Karen Zacarías and directed by Blake Robison, “Native Gardens” is hilarious and, if you think deeply about it, harrowing. Never, perhaps, have such serious subjects (and we’re not talking gardening here) been treated with such razor-sharp wit, devastating comebacks, and wicked repartee. While laughing with glee, you may also be thinking “Oh, she sounds like me,” or, “That’s so like so-and-so next door,”and questioning just why you hold certain beliefs and expectations and whether the stakes really are so high.
Here’s the setup: Tania (Jacqueline Correa) and Pablo Del Valle (Dan Domingues), who are expecting their first child, have moved into a trendy Washington, D.C. neighborhood. She’s from New Mexico, but has Latin heritage, and is earning her Ph.D. He’s Chilean and is trying to make partner at his law firm. They’re smart, charming, and progressive. Their house is dilapidated, but undergoing repairs. When Pablo announces he’s bringing the firm over for a barbeque, Tania freaks out. She’s been waiting to create her long-dreamed-of, native-plant, bees-and-butterfly garden until the house is finished, but now needs to move at record speed. The first thing that has to go is a rickety chain-link fence.
Who lives on the other side of that fence? And has cultivated a non-native garden of showy flowers immaculately planted with perfect symmetry in the back yard? A blue-blood older couple, Frank Butley (Steven Hendrickson) and his defense contractor wife Ginny (Sally Wingert), who are well-meaning but oh-so patronizing. They’re no less sure of themselves than the Del Valles. While the two couples get off to a good start, the agreed-upon desire to remove the fence reveals that Frank’s been gardening, for several decades, on several valuable feet of the Del Valle’s new property.
Lively if veiled discussions over plants and gardening techniques rapidly escalate into disputes over the property line, colonialism and imperialism, race, entitlement, and class. Treated lightly and for laughs, the arguments are truly funny. And yet they deal with serious political and cultural issues we’re contending with today. So when the chainsaw, fence-post digger and hose come out, and battle lines are drawn, you can’t help but laugh, but also feel that the nagging sense of what’s really at stake is more deeply rooted than begonia. It’s oak-tree tap root deep.
It’s all resolved in the end, with both couples making peace. While shaking with laughter and the sweetness of it all, you might also feel your sense of how to civilly engage in neighborly discourse shaken—for the good.
By Camille LeFevre
Photo by Dan Norman, courtesy Guthrie Theater