“Good fences make good neighbors,” so the old proverb goes, but there’s plenty of room for debate about that, both in our society today and in Karen Zacarias’ play Native Gardens, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre.
Fences, walls, barriers, boundaries, what’s mine and not yours, how long you have been in this country and where did you come from—these are issues that serve to divide us, not unite us, historically. At the start of Zacarias’ play, set in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., in the present day, it doesn’t seem as if that fight over territory will be a problem, though.
After all, new residents Pablo Del Valle (Alex Teicheira), and his pregnant wife Tania (Alicia Taylor Tomasko) are being welcomed with open arms—and a bottle of wine and some chocolate—by longtimers Frank (John Thomas Waite) and Virginia Butley (Carolyn Popp). Side by side on the lovely set by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, we see the Butleys’ perfect garden, obsessively tended by Frank, and the fixer-upper the younger couple is at work on. Their back yard is more of a mess, shadowed by a big oak tree, but Tania hopes to fill it with native plants, rather than Frank’s showier invaders.
Still, different strokes for different folks, right? That is, until a planned barbecue at the Del Valles, to welcome the partners of Pablo’s law firm, leads to a survey that proves their yard actually extends two feet into what the Butleys have long seen as theirs.
At first, the younger couple tries to be polite about the mistake, as they plan to replace an old chain-link fence with a more attractive wooden fence. But Frank, his eye on the prize of a long coveted gardening award, would rather fight than remove one flower. And a battle royal erupts, with the backgrounds of everyone concerned, from old Yankee stock to immigrant Chilean, part of the basis for misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
As written by Zacarias and directed by Kate Alexander, Native Gardens is entertaining and scores some satiric points, as nobody goes unskewered here. But the approach is one that makes the four characters types—spokespeople, if you will—rather than unique three-dimensional people, leaving the actors sometimes declaiming rather than just being.
The approach can also work, though, to make the action and the dialogue feel timeless as well as timely. Seen that way, these characters could be from almost any place and any time in claiming what’s important to them. At least, onstage if not in real life, the art of compromise seems possible.
Native Gardens continues through March 25; for tickets call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.