A property line dispute between an older white couple and a young Hispanic couple gets blown grossly out of proportion. The feud between the neighbors unleashes a barrage of pent up frustrations, perceptions, and biases in Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias which is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Zacarias has written what I shall dub an intellectual comedy. It’s not only funny, but it gives the viewer quite a bit of food for thought. It’s certainly a play for the current political climate and makes reference to walls and illegal immigration. But it also focuses on negative isms like racism and ageism as well as white privilege, perception and entitlement. However, it often does this by turning a lot of these negative themes on their heads as it is the Hispanic couple operating from a position of power in this show.
I was especially impressed as to how the two couples are presented as mirror images of each other. Given the similarities in terms of personality, desires and even who wears the pants in the two units, the couples should get along famously. However, their world views are what ultimately bring them into conflict. This makes for a very interesting story as both sides have valid viewpoints for their skirmish.
Ablan Roblin supplies a commendable piece of direction for this comedy. The staging is admirable and reflects the mirror image of the couples with the rather luxurious home of the Butleys and the somewhat ramshackle house (it was derelict for years) of the Del Valles. He keeps the pace brisk and animated with his actors constantly moving about which was actually a bit of a feat due to the actors having to be confined to their yards. He’s coached his thespians to effective and potent performances and knows how to hit the funny even when it touches upon sensitive subject matter.
It was truly a treat to watch the performance of Giovanni Quezada who makes quite the splash with his Playhouse debut. Quezada is one of the most naturalistic actors I’ve ever seen. So credible and believable. And his gestures are fluid and effortless. He brings a real intelligence to his portrayal of Pablo Del Valle. He’s young and hungry and determined to be the best lawyer possible. But his confidence can sometimes border on arrogance and he shows a bit of immaturity by focusing on what’s legal instead of what’s fair.
Mary Kelly’s take on Virginia Butley can best be described as a rock-hard center covered in a sweet candy shell. She’s kind and neighborly, but not someone you’d want to cross as she’s tough as nails, having been a success as a defense contractor during a time when women in that position were few. She’s considerably more level headed than her husband and certainly the dominant spouse as she leads the charge against the Del Valles when their garden is threatened.
Dennis Collins is a scream as Frank Butley. Frank is definitely the most childish of the four adults. All he cares about is his yard and garden and obsesses about winning a gardening competition and finally besting a perpetual rival. Collins’ phrasing is so strong and allows him to maximize his punchlines. His whining and tantrums are truly a joy to watch and his meek delivery of “Why are you yelling at me?” managed to get a loud, hearty guffaw out of a chuckler like me.
Alyssa Isabel Gonzalez is very solid in the role of Tania Del Valle. Tania is the most mature of the adults as she initially wants to handle the property line dispute diplomatically, but even she has her foibles with her snooty views on native gardens and can be quite immature when she allows her emotions to get the better of her. Gonzalez’s Tania is also the rock in her relationship as she comes from a poor family which helped her to be strong as she is a step away from earning her PhD and has taught her husband not to run away from a fight. I did think Gonzalez could play with her words a bit more as her delivery seemed a touch too controlled and cadenced at some points.
Jim Othuse’s set was one of my favorites with the elegant home and lovingly maintained yard of the Butleys juxtaposed with the grassless lawn and worn-down house of the Del Valles though they do have a mighty oak tree. I liked Aja Jackson’s use of shadows and the glow of rear porch lights to emphasize the nighttime scenes. Jenn Sheshko’s costumes well suit the characters especially with the elegant suits for Pablo and the frumpy polos and shorts for Frank. John Gibilisco’s sounds enhance the neighborhood whether it be the song of birds or the roar of chainsaws. Timothy Vallier has composed a nice score for the show and I very much enjoyed the opening theme with its driving bass and backbeat of bongos.
There were some minor blips in the preview night performance with some line bobbles, stepping on cues and lack of projection at some moments. That being said, with the combination of a well-thought out script and humorous, skilled storytelling from the actors, Native Gardens can teach us all a lesson that a lot of difficulties can be solved when people talk to each other instead of at each other.
Native Gardens plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 15. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $36 ($18 for students) and vary by performance. Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com, calling 402-553-0800, or visiting the box office. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.
Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography