Native Gardens: A Battle Between the Generations, and Borders

Cast of Native Gardens:
The cast of Native Gardens:

Native Gardens Pits Two Couples in Two Directions, Right Next Door

Ellen Barry and John Waite in Native Gardens.
Ellen Barry and John Waite in Native Gardens.

The first thing that hit me when we got to our seats for Native Gardens on the balcony of the Majestic Theater in West Springfield were the impressive dual stages that awaited the actors.  One side was an elegant brick townhouse with an extensive and well-manicured garden awash with bright-colored flowers.

On the other side or set, there were flattened beer cans, scattered piles of leaves, and a giant oak tree right next to a house with humble clapboard siding that awaited a fix-up…quite a dramatic contrast. Two houses, two couples. Let the drama begin!

Native Gardens is about a dichotomy. A twin set of outlooks on life, on what has already happened, and what is coming up.

We meet the four protagonists, Virginia and Frank Butley, a high-level clerk, retired from the U.S. government, a garden putterer, and proudly in the hunt for the prize for best Garden from the Potomac Horticultural Society. She’s still working at Lockheed Martin, a feisty woman who made it big in a man’s world.

Across the flowerbed from them are the new neighbors…Pablo and Tania Del Valle. He, a bright and articulate lawyer who grew up rich in Chile, now working hard to get bumped up to partner at his law firm. 

His pregnant wife, Tania, is a professor, she reads a lot and has a whole different view of that garden that Frank is so proud of. 

Where he sees gladiolas and exotic wall-climbing asters, she sees an invasion of non-native plants where no bee wants to land. She likes the Native Garden of our title.  Frank recalls with horror at the stark, natural, and much less manicured concept of her yard.

And that tree?  The one she hugged and worshiped again and again?  Frank and Ginny are sure it should be cut down; it’s a hazard that has to go. 

Peter Evangelista and Sara Linares as Pablo and Tania Delle Valle.
Peter Evangelista and Sara Linares as Pablo and Tania Delle Valle.

Clearly, we’re set up for a few conflicts. That’s the fun. And the really satisfying part is what happens after we’re presented with the parties going to war over the border, both metaphorically and physically.

It’s a delightful proposition and it really works…enough angst and gentle comedy mixed together to propel the tale toward an end.

How would this conundrum ever get solved?

Each character here is fully developed, we are given enough about each figure to really know them, and each represents a different type of character. Frank is the old retired white dude, Pablo, the slim hipster urban immigrant lawyer, but a rich immigrant from Chile, not anyone questionable from Mexico.  Virginia is a hard driver white woman, she made it so why can’t every other woman? Tania is a voice of social consciousness…she slips in things to the conversation that hit hard, questioning the way she sees Frank and Virginia are reacting to their own privilege and she calls them out.  

When the war is ramping up, we think that maybe these two women can bring the parties together. Tania thinks she will be able to talk woman-to-woman, get to the real nub of the issue and solve it.  But their tête-à-tête just brings more rancor, more mean observations about the other, and higher walls. It’s that wall that they are battling over after a survey revealed that two feet of Frank’s prized garden was actually their yard, not his. It would be the perfect ground for the perfect storm of lawsuits and stop work orders. Yup this is getting worse.  

What do we do to make this all work, or will it implode and become a bigger wall, bigger even than the six-foot one-inch stockade that almost made it up?

Go see this show and find out!  There are a whole lot more shows coming up at the Majestic and this evening of fun is a treasure…inspiring with an interesting mix of characters that the audience cares about.

Kudos must go to the set designer Greg Trochlil, who created that tree. Wow. And the two houses with all of the details, the kinds of details that make a set convincing and reinforce the plot. 

far shot

John Thomas Waite’s portrayal of Frank is believable and true, and he gets some funny lines to toss into the mix, as does Ellen Barry, whose character Virginia is another classic stereotype but true to form, she finds herself trying to keep on the right side of political correctness when challenged by the younger Tania for just about everything she believes…she calls in a favor and the local constabulary issues a stop work order. But the law is on the younger couple’s side…and it’s clear Frank and Virginia are in the wrong. 

All four of the principal actors here really fleshed out their parts and the dialogue gave us salient clues about them…Karen Zacarias’s script has topical references that sprinkle the show with a contemporary feel, “I almost voted for Obama” says Frank, as he is accused of being a Republican. 

Sara Linares as Tania is a complex character, looking forward with a prescient take on why invasive plants are harmful, yet completely sympathetic to their befuddled neighbors who can’t see the problem with their copious use of Miracle Grow and Round-Up.  Pablo (Peter Evangelista)  is torn when he looks over at the beautiful gardens wistfully, it’s a shame he and Tania can’t have those bright blooms, instead, they plan a more natural and less attractive backyard. 

Read another rave review of this show, Native Gardens, on Berkshire Theater

Native Gardens, Majestic Theater, 133 Elm St, West Springfield. The show runs through February 12. Directed by James Warwick, and Danny Eaton, Producing Director, with Sara Linares, Peter Evangelista, Ellen Barry, John Thomas Waite, Tina Sparkle, Michael Graham Morales, and Mikey Perez.

Tickets here.