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Theater review: Native Gardens

A scene from "Native Gardens" at the Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo.
Becky Klose/Klose2Uphotography
Farmers Alley Theatre
A scene from "Native Gardens" at the Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo.

Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo recently opened a new comedy, “Native Gardens.” WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

The first thing you may notice on the stage when entering the Farmers Alley Theatre is the difference between the two backyards of side-by-side, single-family dwellings.

On your left, white French doors open onto a neatly groomed, lush landscape with white lattice work festooned with blossoms and a colorful flower garden that shows the fastidious attention of the long-time homeowners, later revealed to be Frank and Virginia Butley.

On your right, a small, red-hatted gnome statue stands needless watch over a rusty barbeque grill and the unkempt, leaf strewn area in back of the fixer-upper recently purchased by a young Hispanic couple, Pablo Del Valle and his very pregnant wife, Tania.

The contrast between these spaces reveals the cultural differences of these families. It also hints at the petty squabbles that will soon develop between neighbors willing to defend the borders and the character of their respective small plots of land by practically any means necessary.

Similarities to present-day American political conflicts are inescapable. Like the controversial fence that divides the lots. Playwright Karen Zacarias’ script for “Native Gardens” provides a comic and satirical take on this and other backyard controversies. One character says, “I’m going to build a new fence and you’re going to pay for it!”

The result is an evening filled with humorous insights into the values of each character, and abundant laughter that’s likely to warm the coldest of winter nights.

Director Christopher Lewyn Ramirez’s cast chooses to go with a comedic light touch when dealing with some of the show’s potentially serious references to the ‘isms” that rear their ugly heads. These include racism, sexism, ageism, colonialism, tokenism, and the ubiquitous narcissism of both male characters.

While Frank, played by Paul Stroili, lapses into stereotypical references by assuming his new neighbors are “Mexican” - she’s really from New Mexico and he’s from Chile - and calls Pablo “son.” Stroili’s demeanor, tone, and reactions suggest that these missteps are born of his character’s ignorance and carelessness, rather than from deep-seated prejudice, hatred, or contempt.

Stroili appropriately presents a character, who, despite feelings of entitlement and a strong desire to win a local garden club award, is teachable and able to learn from his mistakes.

Diane Marie Wasnak, as Frank’s wife Virginia, is a gifted physical comedienne. Despite a welcoming countenance, Wasnak’s character expresses inner frustrations by wielding her cane with military drill precision. Later, she blows tight cigarette smoke rings across the fence into the now foreign territory of the Del Valle’s yard.

Eduardo Curley, as Pablo Del Valle, portrays a young lawyer eager to find validation as a partner in his firm, as well as acceptance for his family in the neighborhood, despite his perceived minority status. He finds the humor in his character’s attempts to have it both ways. Curley can play the victim of the white establishment when convenient, or he can become “the man,” as he threatens Frank with legal action by his prestigious law firm. His character’s humanity shines through, however, in the painful moments when he realizes his own hypocrisy.

Amber Lee Ramos brings grit and spirit to her performance as Tania Del Valle. Her earth-friendly character presents a rational and persuasive case for the insects and benefits of the native plants she intends for her garden. But this mother-to-be is prone to uncontrolled emotional outbursts as she curses Virginia in Spanish that needs no translation.

Ramos also delivers stinging ridicule of the male privilege that her husband and Frank seem to share, and calls them out for self-righteous, macho posturing connected to their overuse of the word “cojones.”

Despite the shortcomings of its characters, and its sitcom spirit, this show provides a happy ending for all. In a concluding direct address to the audience, the two couples jointly share the happy news of family additions, successes, and their mutual reconciliation.

In his program notes, Director Ramirez reminds us that, like in sitcoms of the past like “I Love Lucy” and “All in the Family,” this production of “Native Gardens” gives his audience the opportunity to laugh at a character’s foibles, hold their mistakes at a safe distance, and learn something about themselves in the process.

Gordon Bolar was WMUK's General Manager from 2011 to 2016. He joined the station in 2006 as Development Director. After retiring as General Manager, Gordon has continued to review theater for WMUK.
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