This review from Neil Shurley was originally published in Broadway World on March 13th, 2022.
Ah, there’s nothing like moving into a new house and making the place your own: a little paint inside, some new landscaping outside.
And there’s nothing like meeting the new neighbors: a gift of wine and chocolate one day, an all-out war of new ideas vs the-way-it’s-always-been the next.
What’s that old saying? Good fences make good neighbors?
Welcome to the neighborhood.
In Karen Zacarias’ NATIVE GARDENS, now playing at Greenville, SC’s Warehouse Theatre, the battle between neighbors echoes many of the other cultural wars we’ve been fighting. Fortunately, this skirmish comes loaded with a lot of laughs.
Germainne LeBron and Dayanari Umana play Pablo and Tania, a young couple who’ve just moved into an older neighborhood. He’s an up and coming attorney, originally from Chile, while she is a doctoral candidate, originally from New Mexico. She’s also very pregnant. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia (Terry Wells and Anne Kelly Tromsness), are older, retired, welcoming, and, well, very white. Frank’s passion is his backyard garden, while Tania’s passion is native plants. Tania wants to transform her backyard into a natural oasis for native flora and fauna. Frank just wants to stop being the perpetual runner up in the neighborhood’s annual Best Garden contest, and imagining an invasion of what he thinks of as weeds from Tania’s yard does not make him happy. So when Pablo and Tania decide to replace the decrepit chain link fence between the two yards, battle lines are drawn and the real war begins.
Directed by Patrick Torres, NATIVE GARDENS touches on race, gender, age, relationships, colonialism, and the many walls we construct in our lives. So, yes, it does get into some heavy topics. But the script skewers with equal opportunity, and no one comes out of this looking much like a hero. And it’s all done with a lightness of spirit and plenty of laugh out loud moments – never has the voice of Ira Glass been such an effective punchline.
Director Torres gets excellent performances from all four of the leads, slowly ramping up the comic tension until it simply has to explode. Germainne LeBron is beautifully uptight as the young lawyer feeling pressure from every side, communicating so much with small gestures and looks. Dayanari Umana does a great job carrying the weight of the play – figuratively and literally – on her belly. She brings a smiling brightness to the character which works well against the biting niceness of her neighbors. As those neighbors, Terry Wells and Anne Kelly Tromsness are just perfect – playing older folks whose friendly exteriors hide a rigid commitment to the status quo. Their smiles can be used as weapons, as can their sometimes self-righteous attitudes, and both Wells and Tromsness are experts in their delivery.
Kudos also go to scenic designer Sonya Drum for the excellent set. As always, one of the joys of a show at the Warehouse is seeing how the space is transformed, and for NATIVE GARDENS we get two backyards and two back porches, each of them silently speaking volumes about their inhabitants. And the audience itself is splintered into separate sections, again echoing the easy way divisions can occur even when we are physically close to our neighbors.
Sound designer Stephanie Freeman deserves a special round of applause for the musical choices played between scenes. The show runs just over 90 minutes, without intermission, but it’s broken into many small scenes, and Freeman’s musical selections make for perfect underscoring, highlighting everything we are seeing. I’m sure director Torres had plenty of say in the song choices – maybe Torres picked all the songs, or maybe it’s all scripted – but it all sounded great and hit just the right notes, so Freeman gets a special bow from me for the presentation.
NATIVE GARDENS is timely, thoughtful, and hilarious – see it with friends so you can all decide who in your own neighborhood has experienced these same battles. Because if you haven’t already seen these types of squabbles erupt in your own neck of the woods, well, it’s only a matter of time.