Review: 'Native Gardens'

TheatreWorks production deals with neighborhood politics
When Frank and Virginia meet their new neighbors Pablo and Tania, everything is hunky dory at first.

In Robert Frost's 1914 poem "Mending Wall," the narrator doesn't say, "Good fences make good neighbors." His neighbor does. He wants to mend the stone wall that divides their properties. Instead, it's the narrator, the poet's alter ego, who, after their encounter, asks himself, "If I could put a notion in his head:/'Why do they make good neighbors?'"

Frost continues with this line of inquiry a few lines later wondering, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out." Fences, as we've discovered in recent years, have come to symbolize political ideologies that favor division over unity.

In Native Gardens, Karen Zacarías also employs that deceptively simple metaphor of a fence to explore a variety of complex issues, including identity politics, environmental activism, land ownership and what it means to be a good neighbor. Her play succeeds because it avoids the pitfall of lecturing the audience or excoriating it for being politically incorrect. She expands upon the familiar homily about fences instead of boiling it down to schmaltz. The play's four characters alternately spar and charm each other with their lively, intelligent, differing points of view. But before any of the principal characters ever appear on stage, Andrea Bechert's impressive scenic design transports the audience to the Washington, D.C. suburb the playwright has imagined.

Bechert teaches design and technology at San José State University. If there are any students reading this who want to learn about stagecraft, they should sign up for one of her classes. Bechert created the backyard facades of two adjacent brick homes. They summon up the milieu of a stately East Coast neighborhood, and what that neighborhood represents. These evocative two-story houses are so tall they reach up to the theater rafters. One yard's manicured lawn is lined with purple iris and hydrangea. The window shutters are painted a cheerful blue. The shutters on its twin next door have been neglected. Weeds poke up from the earth, and the limbs of a giant oak tree stretch far and wide. When the characters do enter the stage from their respective back doors, these exterior signs line up with the interior lives of both couples.

Pablo (Michael Evans Lopez) and Tania (Marlene Martinez) have just moved into the neighborhood. They're a young couple who've bought a fixer-upper. Longtime residents Frank (Jackson Davis) and Virginia (Amy Resnick) express a reasonable desire to become friends with their new neighbors. But before everyone can join a mutual admiration society, Pablo and Tania decide to host a barbecue. She's an amateur gardener who's read extensively about the environmental benefits of using native plants. The last-minute party will give her an opportunity to create a garden that will promote the well-beings of birds, bees and the land itself.

The good news is that nobody likes the chain link fence. Frank, an amateur gardener himself, planted English ivy to cover it. Neither he nor Virginia have any objections when Pablo asks if he can replace it with a wood fence. On the contrary, Frank believes a wood fence will improve his chances of winning the neighborhood garden design competition. Trouble comes when Pablo discovers that the current fence is two feet away from where it should be—further in on Frank and Virginia's lot. This poses a series of problems. Without knowing that he's done so, Frank's planted that bed of purple iris and hydrangea he's so proud of on the wrong side of the property line. The design competition is the day after Pablo's and Tania's barbecue. If they put in the new fence, it will destroy the flowers he's worked so hard to cultivate.

Native Gardens poses this neighborly conflict to get at the deeper meaning of what owning property can mean for the status of its occupants. When the stability of their home lives feel threatened, Zacarías does an exceptional job of articulating her characters' tug-of-war between reason and emotion. Or, as Frost put it, she asks them to consider what they're walling in and walling out when they consider what it would mean to build a fence between them.

Native Gardens
Thru Sept 16, $40+
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

Find Art Events

Type: Area:
List your event with Metroactive