At the Victory Gardens Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago ––“Native Gardens” at the Victory Gardens Theater is primarily a sitcom, but it injects so many relevant social issues so smoothly into the comedy that it elevates itself into a show that not only funny but thought provoking, and occasionally disturbing. That’s quite a package of achievements playwright Karen Zacarias has assembled for a vehicle that runs only 85 minutes with no intermission.
The play’s action is performed within a remarkably detailed outdoor set by William Boles that includes two small backyard gardens (one with a giant tree) and the rear facades of two neighboring homes in present day upscale Washington, D.C. The backyard is an equal character with the play’s two married couples--senior citizens Virginia and Frank in one home and young Tania and Pablo in the other. Virginia and Frank are WASPish whites and Pablo is a native of Chile and his ostentatiously pregnant wife Tania is American-born but of Mexican heritage. The various ages, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds of the foursome are the straws that invigorate the show’s plot.
Initially, the two couples hit it off smoothly. The younger twosome has just moved into the neighborhood where Virginia and Frank have lived for many years. Everyone looks forward to an agreeable relationship. But there is a worm in the neighborly apple in the form of a banged-up chain fence that separates the two properties. Frank is retired and spends much of his waking existence passionately tending his flower garden on his side of the fence. Tania is just as zealous about planting her garden. But Tania is a fervent environmentalist who scorns Frank’s beautiful flowers because they rob insects and bees of precious nutrients. Frank for his part scorns Tania’s “back to nature” garden with its appreciation of bugs and other insects and its love of bland natural color.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
The contrasting ecological philosophies are aggravated by the discovery that the shared property line has been misread for many years and the younger couple actually owns a couple of feet of Frank and Virginia’s yard, the exact space where Frank has devotedly cultivated his flowers. Heated arguments ensue, with the playwright injecting a couple of artificial crises to heat up the narrative’s emotional content. Pablo wants to dismantle the fence by the end of the week to clear his part of the backyard for a barbecue he and his wife are planning for Pablo’s new employers. Frank needs his garden in place for a garden club competition that he desperately wants to win, with the judges coming the upcoming Sunday.
Soon outrage fills the air and the verbal fur really starts to fly. As the four characters turn acrimonious in defense of the disputed property both see as rightfully theirs, the dialogue turns to comments and innuendoes about race and age and ethnic heritage and who can more legitimately call themselves Americans. The arguments not only extend between couples but within the couples. Pablo was raised in wealth and privilege in Chile while Tania faced ethnic slurs and discrimination as a Mexican American. Frank is a mild mannered man while Virginia, who comes from a rough and tumble blue collar background, is the alpha dog of the marriage, and the imbalance shows fractures in their relationship.
Zacarias explores an abundance of politically incorrect points with a humor that does not trivialized their reality. Early on the audience might tend to side with the younger and more ingratiating couple but both sides get a fair hearing and both sides are held up to gentle but firm ridicule for their dogmatism and self righteousness. What makes the play work so agreeably is that both couples are nice people, as each proclaims. There is nothing offensive about anyone on stage. Each character is ensnared in the small prejudices are part of the societal air we breathe in this country. None of the four would admit to being prejudiced but as the stress level rises, inbred prejudice fills their discourses. Zacarias’s deft writing keeps raising the comedy level as the conflict between the neighbors ascends to greater and greater acrimony.
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
“Native Gardens” (a great title) is saved from stridency on one hand and silliness on the other by the combination of a fine script, the sure directing by Marti Lyons, and the terrific work by the four-player ensemble. Patrick Clear and Janet Ulrich Brooks take on the roles of Frank and Virginia. We have enjoyed these fine actors for years so we aren’t surprised to see each one nail his or her role, Clear’s Frank a milquetoast type except when his flowers come under assault, and Brooks ready to get into the faces of Tania and Pablo with no quarter asked and none given.
I was unfamiliar with either Gabriel Ruiz (Pablo) or Paloma Nozicka (Tania), but I came away impressed. Nozicka has an extensive accumulation of storefront theater credits but “Native Gardens” gives her the most exposure she’s had locally and she seizes the moment. She is lumbered with a huge false stomach to indicate her pregnancy, which is worth a few giggles, but she delivers a multi dimensional performance that should open doors to the major A list theaters in the area. Ruiz’s Pablo is a little less complex a character but Ruiz still holds up his end of the acting persuasively, even when a lawn chair he flopped into on opening night partially gave way underneath him. It was one of the comic highlights of the evening and Victory Gardens should keep it in the show.
After all the brawling, the show ends with a choral epilogue drenched in positive resolutions. The spectators should be pleased because the characters have entertained us so thoroughly that their stories deserve to come out happily.
The Boles set should be in the conversation for a Jeff award. Samantha Jones designed the costumes, just right for the personalities of the four characters. Keith Parham’s lighting, Milkail Fiksel’s sound design, and Jaq Seifert’s fight choreography all contribute to the solid physical staging. And highest props to director Lyons for her perfectly judged melding of broad comedy and social commentary.
Zacarias is building an impressive resume in Chicagoland theater, most notably with the recent Goodman staging of her “Destiny of Desire.” But “Native Gardens” could be a script that gets her national attention. Regional theaters should love the small cast, single set, and the widespread appeal of relevant social issues wrapped in easily accessible comedy. It’s easily one of the most winning theater experiences of the season.
The play gets a rating of 3½ stars.
“Native Gardens” runs through July 2 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $60. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com June 2017
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