Review: ‘Native Gardens’ at Arena Stage

Native Gardens is a bloomin’ hysterical comedy at Arena Stage

Need something to boost you up? Perhaps something to make you, temporarily, forget the current political and social climate? Or, the threat of a wall rising on our southern border?

Head to Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C. You’ll have a bloomin’ good time watching Native Gardens, which is making its D.C. debut.

This play is a must-see.

Steve Hendrickson, Jacqueline Correa, Dan Domingues and Sally Wingert. Photo by Dan Norman.

It is the latest comedy by the prolific Karen Zacarias, who was an inaugural resident playwright at Arena. It is directed with split-second timing and a finger pressed to the pulse of the American mood by Blake Robison, artistic director of Cincinnati Playhouse, where he directed the world premier of Native Gardens last season.

The four lead characters in the show, each perfect for their role, also starred in the premier.

Upon entering the theater, the audience is treated to a surreal – or so real – view of the rear of two brick townhouses, built in 1908. Designed by Scenic Designer Joseph Tilford, the residence on the left, just purchased by the Del Valle couple, is dilapidated. A real fixer-upper. The moulding is moldy and in need of paint. You can sense the inside looks the same. Its small yard needs some love, though its centerpiece is a tall, stately oak tree. The yard is unkempt, branches that have fallen from the tree have not been cleaned up, the yard elf looks dirty and no self-respecting bird would wallow in the concrete bird bath.

Dan Domingues and Jacqueline Correa. Photo by Dan Norman.

On the right is the Butley residence. It has attractive, well groomed flower beds, scrupulously pruned boxwood hedges and well-trimmed lawn, plus several sturdy metal chairs, benches and a table at which to enjoy the view while seated on the slate tile patio.

Dividing the two properties is a banged up cyclone fence draped with English Ivy.

The Butleys are an older couple, on the far side of the Boomer generation. They’ve lived in their posh neighborhood for decades. Semi-retired Frank Butley (Steve Hendrickson) has scrupulously groomed his gardens for years hoping to win First Place in the Potomac Horticultural Society’s garden contest. The judging is this Sunday. The same neighbor always wins. Frank would kill for the chance to be the winner.

Frank’s comparison of the blooming of the very first tulip he planted to childbirth is hysterical. Even if you’ve had a baby.

His wife, Virginia Butley (Sally Wingert), is still working as an engineer at Lockheed Martin. Kudos to Costume Designer Kara Harmon for this character’s outfits that make her a sexy, sophisticated-looking senior. Every woman in the audience wanted to steal Virginia’s outfits.

The new neighbors are Pablo Del Valle (Dan Domingues), a rising lawyer in a D.C. firm, and his very pregnant wife, Tania Del Valle (Jacqueline Correa), who is working on her doctoral dissertation.

Sally Wingert. Photo by Dan Norman.

Joining them as supplemental extras (surveyors and fence builders) – and injecting some wiggly, giggly humor – are Guadalupe Campos, Oscar Ceville, Javier del Pilar and Christopher Rios.

Pablo, now an American, but born into a very wealthy Chilean family, was disinherited when his parents discovered he was planning to marry Tania. She is a Hispanic American whose family has lived in New Mexico for over 170 years but is still treated as second-class migrants.

Spying the Butleys, Pablo suggests to Tania, “We can do American Wasp – or at least imitate it.”

Tania has some common traits with Virginia, who is a Polish-American and the first woman engineer in her department, married to an Old World American of British descent – who never lets her forget Brits are superior people.

The new and old neighbors first meeting is warm, cordial and hints of a great relationship to come – even though the Butleys make several insensitive, tone-deaf remarks, underlining their ignorance of – or indifference to – different cultures. They also hate the Del Valles’ oak tree and offer to have it cut down.

Frank describes his love of pesticides and non-native plants. Tania, for her part, is planning an organic, native garden. “Is this native garden something that springs from your rich Mexican heritage?” Frank queries. His comment sets off a verbal firestorm of retorts, volleys and puns.

When Pablo and Tania plan for a barbeque in the backyard of their new home on Saturday, they make a discovery that sets off a nasty, escalating border war of words, threats and actions that challenge the concept of neighborliness while invoking race, class, white privilege and every other hot button issue of the day.

Though this play seems like it was written for today, it will still resonate five, ten or twenty years from now.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Native Gardens plays through October 22, 2017 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, S.W., in Washington, D.C.For tickets, call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

There will be a post-show conversation with artists and staff on September 27, October 2 and October 11 following the noon performance; October 10 following the 7:30 p.m. performance; and October 12 following the 8 p.m. performance.

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!


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