Native Gardens was one of the most popular plays in America during the 2018-19 season, hitting stages at a dozen American theater companies. Now, Dallas Theater Center is presenting Karen Zacarías’ comedy after a planned 2020 production was delayed by the pandemic.
The story of two couples engaged in an ethnically charged battle over the property line between their homes was previously produced in North Texas at Addison’s WaterTower Theatre in 2017.
Sylvia Cervantes Blush, who is directing the Theater Center show, says the play remains relevant because the country is still divided over age-old questions like who should be allowed to live where.
Since Native Gardens premiered, the Mexican-born Zacarías has leaned into current events, writing new material responding to the election of former President Donald Trump.
“We’re at a point where we’re not really communicating with each other, especially on social media,” Blush says. “Everybody has their own soapbox, and no one’s listening. It’s just become this finger-pointing type of culture.”
One of the remarkable things about Native Gardens is that it takes on these issues primarily with humor. The Del Valles, a young Latino couple, have moved in next door to the Butleys, who are older and white.
Initially, there are good intentions on both sides, Blush says. The new neighbors want to replace the worn-out chain-link fence between their properties with a fancy wooden one, a sentiment greeted enthusiastically next door. Even when the clash comes later, no one can be easily labeled the villain.
Blush’s comparison — and she’s not the first to make it — are the television sitcoms of the 1960s and ‘70s, from I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show to All in the Family and Good Times.
“The themes of the play are so well planted within the humor,” she says. “Because I grew up in the world of sitcoms, all of the antics felt a lot like Lucy and Ethel getting into trouble. And these themes were reminiscent of the Norman Lear shows, where there was comedy but at the heart there were social issues being discussed. … They’re brought up in the play in a way that doesn’t feel preachy.”
The conflict arrives when a survey shows that the Del Valles’ lot legally extends two feet into the Butleys’ side of the fence, where it happens Frank Butley has tended an elaborate English garden for years. In fact, it’s up for an award he’s long sought at the exact moment that it might be torn up.
The new fence is part of Pablo Del Valle’s plan to impress his law firm colleagues at a backyard get-together. Meanwhile, the extremely pregnant Tania Del Valle, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, plans on growing a garden of indigenous plants on their side of the border.
Enter the Del Valles’ assumptions about the Butleys because they’re white and vice-versa. In one heated moment, Tania tells Frank and Virginia, “I’m building my fence to keep you out!” Pablo adds: “And you’re going to pay for it.”
Dallas Theater Center has assembled a first-rate cast, including veteran Dallas actors Sally Nystuen Vahle and Bob Hess as the Butleys and Christopher Ramirez and Tiffany Solano as the Del Valles. All are members of the DTC resident acting company.
“What Karen has done is given us four human beings that really do want to get along,” Blush says. “They really do want to be good neighbors to each other. They just keep making bad decisions because they’re blind to the bigger picture.”
Feb. 9-25 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. $15-$75. dallastheatercenter.org.