Fearful Grasping

Karen Zacarias’s ‘Native Gardens’
Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater

“Your new neighbors”: Few phrases evoke such a mix of hope and dread. They’ll provide barbecues and babysitters, or else they’ll be the occasion for 911 calls and “Clean It or Lien It” signs. Karen Zacarias’s play Native Gardens, which recently ran at Washington DC’s Arena Stage, uses the new neighbors as a microcosm of social and demographic change. Zacarias wants to offer hope of reconciliation in an increasingly divided country. But reconciliation turns out to be much harder to make plausible than division.

The play opens on two front yards, perfectly imagined by set designer Joseph Tilford. The Butleys (played by Steve Hendrickson and Sally Wingert) have a proper English garden, all hedges and roses. Next door a majestic oak reigns over a weedy brick lot. But Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Dan Domingues and Jacqueline Correa) have just moved in, and Tania has big plans for that unprepossessing lot.

The Butleys are WASP Republicans—Virginia Butley’s feminism consists in being a pioneer in the defense-contracting industry—while the Del Valles are Latino Democrats. The Del Valles are into biodiversity; the Butleys are into bad puns. Everyone’s very civic-minded and well-meaning. The Del Valles smilingly endure white nonsense (“It’s just that you look so Mexican!”) and give reasonably amusing rebuttals. But the clash over English gardens vs. native gardens is the precursor to a much deeper conflict, which spirals out of the couples’ control despite everybody’s best intentions.

All four actors understand that their task is to inhabit stereotypes in a way the audience can relate to. They’re adept at displaying foibles. We see that these are all people who want to be good and believe that they basically are good, but whose best intentions are often defeated by their passions. Zacarias has lived in DC since 1991, and the play is larded with local references: sinister hints about the CIA, an argument conducted in Washington Post advertising slogans. When Frank Butley suggests the Del Valles should have moved to rapidly gentrifying Petworth, Pablo willfully misremembers him as telling them to go live in “Petco” like animals. But DC’s demographic transformation is the death of the “Chocolate City”: the black-majority era in the nation’s capital has been swept away by a tidal wave of white money. The story of a well-to-do Latino couple moving into a rich white enclave has very little to do with DC’s biggest current struggles over ubiquitous, unstoppable gentrification.

Even if Native Gardens does not have much to say about 2017 DC, what does it have to say about 2017 America?

Even if Native Gardens does not have much to say about 2017 DC, what does it have to say about 2017 America? Zacarias tries to be fair enough, but there’s never any real doubt as to who’s mostly in the right here. The white folk are trying to grab more than their fair share. When they’re fighting about philosophies of gardening, Frank Butley cries triumphantly that he’s nurturing “immigrant plants.” Tania’s retort that his plants are “colonialists” is played for laughs—they’re just plants!—but of course she’s closer to being right than he is. Making the person in the right endearingly ridiculous is a reliable technique for gentle comedy, and its use here is typical of the play’s attempt to mix empathy, justice, and humor.

The major problem with this perfectly serviceable, sitcom-esque play comes at its climax. The neighbors have reached the point of legal and even physical threats. Then there’s a deus ex viscera, and everyone rallies ’round to do their duty. In less than a minute the play’s entire conflict is resolved, and all that’s left is a bizarre denouement in which the characters break the fourth wall to tell us how things are perfect now that everyone’s behaving reasonably. Everybody gets what they want most.

The spiraling conflict itself—which has its roots in decisions nobody remembers making—feels like a comedic microcosm of real life. The conflict’s resolution feels like wishful thinking. And because it’s forced and unbelievable, the play unintentionally suggests that our racial and political conflicts aren’t actually resolvable. The ending’s very cheeriness is what makes it so depressing: whistling past the polling station.

Perhaps the most unexpected element of Native Gardens is Zacarias’s sympathetic treatment of men under stress. Pablo is a corporate lawyer, with all the anxieties and fears common to “BigLaw” men desperate to make partner. Frank is retired, but still so tightly wound that his garden serves as a kind of botanical Xanax. When they fight you can see the antlers clashing. But Zacarias (unlike the audience the night I attended) doesn’t simply mock their irrationality and overreactions. With the light touch of comedy, she shows their defensiveness and fear. She lets them be not only angered but baffled by their own lack of control—and self-control.

And so perhaps under the play’s rickety structure there’s something wise. Every character is comfortably middle-class at least, and yet all of them feel threatened, precariously perched above an abyss of failure. Despite their civic-mindedness, they can’t argue themselves out of fearful grasping; you can never feel secure enough. That rushed climactic event offers them a chance to see helplessness as beautiful, and an event you can’t control as the source of joy. In the face of a blessing—unearned, unowned—their anxieties seem small.

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker in Washington, DC. She the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel.

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