Theater Review: A Nation’s Messy Debate, on Display in A Backyard Garden

Pictured Above: Martha Kelly as Virginia Butley (left) and Samantha Herrera as Tania Del Valle (right) in HTC’s new production of “Native Gardens”. |. Tom Kochie photo for HTC

If I were to send you a photograph of a sagging metal fence running a line between two properties, one side a disheveled dirt lot filled with acorns and leaves, and the other a tidy yard with a bright brick planter brimming with perky flowers in an array of patriotic colors, you’d probably guess some dramatic tension was about to ensue. Put a couple bright orange surveyors’ flags about two feet in to the flower-filled yard and you’ve got a picture of a whole host of potential for dramatic conflict.

Such is the premise of “Native Gardens,” a 2019 play by Karen Zacarias that is the welcome first production since the pandemic by Quogue’s Hampton Theatre Company.

This company’s strengths are on full display in this production, from the stunning set detail to the expert dramatic and comedic timing of its mix of local theater veterans and up-and-coming actors.

The playwright, Ms. Zacarias, was born in Mexico and lives in Washington, D.C., the backdrop for this play, which is a microcosm of the messiness of modern American ideals, prejudices, desires and social awkwardness. Even the fence dividing the set serves as a reminder of the walls, both literal and figurative, that have divided American discourse in recent years.

In “Native Gardens,” the Butleys, longtime residents of a wealthy D.C. neighborhood, are Virginia, a pioneering female defense contractor, and her husband, Frank, who may have worked for “The Agency,” although we never find out whether this is the CIA or the General Services Administration, which is in charge of buying things like desks for federal offices. As the action begins, Frank is preparing his immaculate garden for a contest sponsored by the Potomac Garden Club, a task that requires a bevy of pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers.

The Butleys’ new neighbors, Tania and Pablo Del Valle, have just purchased the property next door, which has suffered from years of neglect. Tania, a very pregnant doctoral candidate and believer in native gardens and the works of ecological author Douglas Tallamy, is in love with the native oak tree abutting the house, an ecological powerhouse that she hopes to make the centerpiece of a garden filled with native plants that attract pollinating insects. Frank’s pesticides rub her the wrong way from the start.

But it’s the Del Valle’s discovery that their lot is larger than they had known when they bought it — Pablo has just started working as an attorney at a powerhouse law firm and plans to reclaim the garden immediately — that sends this conflict down a rabbit hole into the morass of American ideals and hypocrisy.

The acting throughout this production is superb, and it is clear the actors are glad to have a chance to be back up on stage.

Samantha Herrera and Edwin Alexander Cruz as Tania and Pablo Del Valle, both accomplished actors but newcomers to the HTC stage, take heartily to their characters’ idealism, to their goal of harmony with nature and to the interconnectedness of that goal with the ever-shifting nature of identity, privilege and class in the United States.

Martha Kelly and Terrance Fiore as Virginia and Frank Butley both take to their roles with great aplomb. Ms. Kelly is wry and mischievous, aware of the power of her femininity and how it interplays with the power of her work in a man’s field. Mr. Fiore, alternatingly aghast and flabbergasted at the potential destruction of his garden, takes to the role with a great deal of wit.

Gary Hygom’s set, one scene that is a constant throughout the show, is stunning in its detail, from the centerpiece oak tree to the flower beds to the billows of dirt that rise up regularly from the Del Valle’s backyard when the action gets heated.

The scale of this production is just right for a return to the stage after more than a year without life theater. With just four actors (and one extra, who serves as surveyor and fence builder with no speaking role, but whose face speaks volumes), and no set changes, the company, under the direction of veteran HTC director George A. Loizides, has a chance to hone what it does best.

While the exposition of the ideas in this production can be heavy-handed at times, these actors know their delivery and timing can make even the most preachy material hit home. And this play is often laugh-out-loud funny, with zingers like “everything we like is bad for us, like margarine, white rice and Cat Stevens,” or some just-outside-the-beltway chiding like “they could have bought a chicken coop in hippy-dippy Takoma Park.”

Indeed, it’s this play’s proximity to the seat of power in this country that gives its subject matter the most credibility. This is the place where the United States’ ideals meet its sausage factory. It’s a wonder anything constructive comes out of this place, but, at least on the stage, there is hope for a more perfect union.

“Native Gardens” runs at the Quogue Community Hall through Nov. 7, with shows on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. An additional matinee performance will be offered on Saturday, November 6 at 2:30 p.m.

For the safety of all, ticket holders will be required to show photo IDs and either 1) proof of vaccination or 2) documentation of a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of the day of the performance they are attending. Face-covering masks will be required at all times while inside the theater. For more information on safety protocols, visit hamptontheatre.org.

Tickets are $36, $31 for seniors, and $20 for students 25 and under. To purchase tickets, visit www.hamptontheatre.org; for additional information, please call 631.653.8955.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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