Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias moves swiftly in its world premiere at The Playhouse in the Park. We decided to see it for a number of reasons, not the least being that award winning Broadway triple threat Karen Ziemba is in the cast. Zacarias is hot right now, having five premieres at major venues around the country this year, but she has been writing and been produced for over two decades. It’s the type of play and production where an audience may wish it last another ten minutes or even delve deeper into the issues it raises.
The premise is classic: a young, liberal Chilean-Hispanic American couple move into a fixer-upper next door to a middle-aged, conservative Caucasian American couple in a beautifully restored and landscaped (by the husband) Italianate in a Washington suburb. The new couple find out that their property line actually extends two feet into the garden next door; the younger wife wants to plant a garden of native varieties whereas the older husband’s garden focuses on ornamentals. The situation could take place, however, in Mt. Adams or Mt. Lookout or the Historic district of Newport. The specifics in locale, personalities, and conflicts reverberate for anyone with neighbors.
The Playhouse administration was smart to commission this script after the success it experienced with the earlier The Book Club Play by Zacarias. In this new work, Zacarias offers a master class in one act comedy structure: current world, inciting incident, complications and reversals, crisis-climax, (very quick) denouement, new world. The denouement felt slightly off-kilter because I’m thinking there was an early light cue call, which caught the actors before they were on their marks. They reacted professionally, but the show felt like it was suddenly over.
|Varela and Ziemba*|
The cast worked tightly and in concert. Ziemba, who could pass for a decade younger than her and her character’s age, provides smooth professionalism and support in the least showy role. She has a great bit with a chain saw and a contentious oak tree that looked incredibly realistic. Gabriel Ruiz displays an elegance and intelligence that are attractive until they shade subtly into condescension. The most intriguing roles are those of the gardeners: the younger Hispanic woman and the older Caucasian man. Sabina Zuniga Varela plays a very pregnant force of pragmatic Nature with a brightness that foreshadows a hopeful ending.
|Ruiz and Lescault*|
However, it’s John Lescault whose portrait of an aging, unknowingly entitled yet clear-eyed husband that is most indelible. Lescault moves with an exactness that borders on fastidiousness before exploding. His background in opera lends itself to the vocal notes he hits for laughs. These were debuts at The Playhouse. Here’s hoping they’ll return in the future.
|The Jaw-dropping Set*|
Blake Robison directs seamlessly and stages one terrific scene where both couples are simultaneously strategizing like middlebrow, suburban Macbeths and use the same gestures. Joseph P. Tilford’s set and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting are gorgeous. It’s a breath-taking moment walking into the Robert Marx auditorium.
*Photos from Playhouse in the Park Website
Native Gardens runs through Sunday, February 21, 2016.