Native Gardens: An Insightful, Uproarious Social Satire

The Guthrie Theater, through August 20

Dan Domingues (Pablo Del Valle), Jacqueline Correa (Tania Del Valle), Sally Wingert (Virginia Butley) and Steve Hendrickson (Frank Butley) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Native Gardens. Photo by Dan Norman.

In many ways, this moment in American history feels like a pressure cooker. Due to the heightened rhetoric surrounding certain not-to-be-named public figures, social mores are being tested more regularly and many interactions seem one false step from open conflict. This is true of even the most well-intentioned folk, a point made with sharp wit and bite in Karen Zacarías’s new comedy Native Gardens (playing now through August 20 at the Guthrie’s proscenium stage).

The set design for the show (by Joseph Tilford) is a work of beauty that clearly and concisely sets the scene. On stage right you have a fixer upper owned by the Del Valles, a young, educated Latinx couple settling into their new home and preparing for the arrival of their first child. On stage left you have the carefully manicured, pristine landscaping of the Butleys, an aging, conservative, monied couple living out their empty-nester days in curated comfort. These two homesteads start on solid footing with housewarming gifts and cordial visits, but soon enough a dispute over property lines quickly reveals their suspicions of one another’s motives and fuels escalating, and frequently hilarious, tension.

The show is directed with a deft touch by Blake Robison, who keeps the proceedings light with interjections of pop music and an overall playfulness marked by witty transitions, quick-fire exchanges, and performances steeped in heightened theatrics.

Those performances are uniformly excellent, with each of the four principle actors bringing unique characterization and personality to their roles. Dan Domingues allows the quirks and goofiness underneath the savvy lawyer exterior to shine through Pablo Del Valle, and Jacqueline Correa matches him at every turn as his passionate, thoughtful wife, Tania, willing to get dirty and dig deep to make her dreams–at home and in her career–a reality. She particularly excels when given the opportunity to express inner conflict.

As their neighborly counterparts, Steve Hendrickson and Sally Wingert more than deliver. Wingert plays Virginia Butley with compelling craftiness as well as both obliviousness and flashes of maternal care. Hendrickson gives Frank Butley the deliberate innocence that frequently manifests itself with privilege, and he exhibits a broad comic aloofness that manifests itself in slapstick hijinks and physical comedy.

The lighting design by Xavier Pierce is excellent and beautifully establishes the passage of time as tensions fester as well as time’s signal of an approaching deadline. Kara Horman’s costumes aren’t flashy, but they needn’t be and work well to capture the differences between the Del Valles and the Butleys.

If there’s anything negative to be said about Native Gardens, which is truly a delightful and insightful evening of theater, it’s that its script is a little too neat, especially as it reaches its climax. Zacarías gives her audience a delightful, madcap romp that skillfully builds tension and playfully points out the ways in which all of us are a bit blind to the challenges that others face, but it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise in its final moments. That being said, the comedy bites almost all the way through and will surely prove to be an entertaining conversation starter for a night out.

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