While on the surface it’s a cute tale about conflicts between neighbors, there’s a lot ore going on beneath the surface of Native Gardens.
The theater-in-the-round design for the set gives the audience the feeling of peering in on all angles of the two neighboring homes, a perspective that is carried over in the script’s approach to tackling many angles on the argument between the two couples who recently became next-door neighbors.
The script thoughtfully highlights the many facets of the deceptively-complex conflict the characters find themselves in after a young Latinx couple, Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Ryan Garbayo and Mariana Fernández), move into a house in a “stately, historic” area of Washington D.C. and find that the boundary of their property actually extends into the property of their elderly white neighbors, Frank and Virginia Butley (John Ahlin and Jordan Baker).
The incorrectly-placed border between the properties is just benign enough a conflict that, as the tension escalates to the eventual slow-mo battle scene, it becomes clear that the neighbors are upset by something a little more deep-seated than just the border between their properties.
Indeed, the punny, fast-paced dialogue is peppered with references to racism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and of course, Mexico-U.S border disputes. The audience was responsive to many of these references, gasping and groaning on cue, and the audience got a huge kick out of Pablo Del Valle telling Frank Butley that he’s going to build a fence between their properties and make the Butleys pay for it.
The characters seem to be competing to spit out comebacks throughout the entire show, but each line is intentionally crafted to exhibit a different side of the story. The script travels along as many pathways of entitlement, ignorance, and bias as it can squeeze into a 90-minute show, exploring the subtle, socio-political nuances behind each line while we’re riding in the sidecar, bumping along as the show careens dangerously close to the phrases we know shouldn’t be said, covering our eyes and holding our breath.
But, the beauty of the conversations, or more aptly, shouting matches, is that the characters are so determined to reach an accord that they keep going back and revisiting the hurtful words, apologizing, and raising new points. Both couples decide that their neighbors are worth reasoning with and keep reminiscing on the gathering when they first met, when they were all hopeful that they could be good friends.
The actors keep the audience invested by compelling us to understand their characters and their motives. While the lines are often terse, harsh, and even hostile, the delivery and body language reveals the endearing, human sides of each character, reminding us that no one is perfect.
Although the action is mostly confined to the characters furiously pacing across lawns, I left the play feeling tense and exhausted, but satisfied. The only breaks in the tension were the transitional scenes when a group of construction workers would come do work on the controversial fence between the two yards.
In Native Gardens, the unending tension was worth it because, sometimes, it takes the convention of a play within the institution of a theater to make us sit down and listen to all sides of an issue that might normally cause us to get fed up and walk away.
Native Gardens is running through May 6 at the Space Theatre in the DCPA. Get tickets and more info here.