Hot-button issues leap across Karen Zacarías’ “Native Gardens,” Arizona Theatre Company’s season opener.
Racism. Privilege. Ageism. Sexism. Even a border fence. They all are packed into the comedy.
Yup, a comedy. And a successful one at that, thanks to a strong cast and a light touch by director Jane Jones.
Here’s the setup:
The Butleys — Virginia (Robynn Rodriguez) is an engineer, and Frank (Bill Geisslinger) a retired government worker with a passion for gardening. They live in a tony Washington neighborhood and have an expansive backyard largely taken up by a colorful English garden. With the help of weed killer and Miracle-Gro, Frank has coaxed the blooms into complete submission and has his eye on winning awards for his devotion to the garden.
The Butley’s have lived in their house — and Frank has tended that garden — for decades.
Their much-younger new neighbors, Tania and Pablo Del Valle (Arlene Chico-Lugo and Keith Contreras) have a slightly smaller backyard, which is sorely in need of attention. She is a pregnant Ph.D. student, a Latina from New Mexico who frequently has to explain she is an American, and is anxious to transform the yard into a gorgeous garden that will nurture the soil and feed the environment. Pablo is a lawyer in a big firm and is itching to be made partner. He is from Chile, and from the moment he stepped on American soil has felt he had to do something he never had to do in his home country — prove he has worth, is fully human.
The couples are friendly at first, though the Butley’s language clearly indicates they are not terribly comfortable with neighbors with a darker shade of skin.
Things turn not-so-friendly, however, when the Del Valles, preparing to erect a fence, discover why their yard seems smaller — the Butleys’ garden extends about 2 feet into their yard.
Chico-Lugo’s Tania was full of heart and fury — her anger is righteous and articulate. Rodriguez’s Virginia was cold and indignant one moment, warm and welcoming the next. The men are not as well-drawn as the women, but both Contreras and Geisslinger infused their roles with enough energy and physical humor to give us a deeper sense of who they are.
Zacarías’ script is fat with comedy and, despite the heavy undertones, never becomes preachy.
Or illuminating. The play has a sitcom feel to it, moving quickly and without much depth.
And Zacarías ties it up so neatly that one feels almost cheated.
Still, there is a warmth to “Native Gardens,” which is ultimately enough goodwill to make you forgive its shortcomings.