Cleveland Play House’s ‘Native Gardens’ Breaks Down Barriers

click to enlarge Cleveland Play House’s ‘Native Gardens’ Breaks Down Barriers
Photo by Roger Mastroianni

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

This common adage is a line from Robert Frost’s 1914 poem, Mending Wall, within which, the narrator applies a negative connotation to the saying as he questions why there is a fence separating him from his neighbor.

People often pluck the saying out of Frost’s poem, unaware of the surrounding context, and take it as a piece of advice rather than a line for criticism.

Culprits of the above statement are the characters in Native Gardens, now at Cleveland Play House, who reference this popular line, sure that a fence will make them better neighbors. But in this politically relevant, relatable, hot-button comedy, audiences will delight in watching characters discover how tumultuous building a border can be.

A young couple, Pablo and Tania Del Valle, have just bought a fixer-upper next to the older Frank and Virgina Butley. While the relationship between the new neighbors is originally friendly, an unclear property line for a fence combined with contrasting gardening preferences, backgrounds, ethnicities and political beliefs result in a full-blown border dispute.

Native Gardens kicks-off CPH’s New Ground Theatre Festival. Written by Karen Zacarías, winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award, the show premiered in 2016 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

Zacarías embedded many different thought-provoking themes within the dialogue of Native Gardens, touching upon many of the “isms,” such as classism, racism, ageism and sexism. Director Robert Barry Fleming ensures that all of these themes emerge in natural, subtle and humorous ways.
The arguments over a property line between the Del Valles and the Butleys exposes prejudices and implicit biases. The couples begin questioning if their respective races, Latinx and Caucasian, their gardening styles, natural and traditional, or their ages, young and old, are the causes for hostilities.

In addition, talks of building a wall and the tensions between a couple viewed as immigrants and an established white family draw obvious comparisons to today’s political climate.

The Del Valles and Butleys are far more genial and understanding than so many who have vocal opposing political views, and therefore, the conversation around hot-topics is often casually light. However, the show was written not to launch political debates, but to simply touch upon controversial topics within the unifying art of comedy, which it does successfully.

As a Latinx individual from New Mexico, Tania Del Valle, played by Natalie Camunas, has always been looked at as an outsider, even though she is American. Camunas plays Tania with a fire and passion for her beliefs, but also with a respect for others. She is likable and carries herself as an informed and respected individual.

Tania grew up in a lower-class family, while her husband, Pablo, played by Grayson DeJesus, had a silver spoon in his mouth since childhood. DeJesus is amiable and is often feels cool and collected. His Chilean identity has hindered growth at his law firm, but his acceptance of the reality of his situation and his desire to overcome prejudices show a strength in character, which DeJesus translates effectively.

Charlotte Maier’s character, Virginia Butley, also faced inequity in the workplace, as she was the only woman engineer at her company. Maier’s Virginia is toughened and confident but can also be kind. Maier implies a depth to her character and has a magnetic presence on stage.

Virginia is certainly tougher than her husband, Frank Butley, embodied by Wynn Harmon. Frank adores gardening and is quite soft-hearted. Harmon is sweet, bumbling and often funny, especially as he makes the rounds on his garden, weeding and trimming with a vengeance.

The flowers he is trimming stand in front of Jason Ardizzone-West’s hyper-realistic set design, which features the backyards of two side-by-side, two story houses. He depicts a traditional English garden surrounding the Butley’s back-porch deck, while the Del Valles have a neglected yard, the most impressive feature of which, is a massive oak tree.

Michael Boll lights the set as if the sun were shining through the oak’s leaves and bathes the houses in a variety of colors during scene transitions, during which, sound designer, Rodolfo Ortega, often plays Latin inspired music. Helping modify the gardens during both the action and transitions between are a team of gardeners played by Anais Bustos, Anthony Velez and Julia Rosa Sosa.

Costume designer Inda Blatch-Geib dresses the characters according to their personalities, either in powerful, professional attire, or casual, yet stylish, gardening wear.

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know; What I was walling in or walling out; And to whom I was like to give offense.”

This too is a line from Frost’s Mending Wall. It’s unfortunate that the Butleys and the Del Valles hadn’t read the poem in its entirety, but it’s lucky for audiences, for whom watching these couples learn the reality behind “good fences make good neighbors” is a pleasure.

Through May 19 at the Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., $25 – $97, call 216-241-6000 or go to
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