We’re hearing a lot of talk these days about walls. Karen Zacarías’ play, Native Gardens, takes that national issue and drops it into the Washington, D.C. backyards of two couples who clash, not just about a border, but also over the aesthetics of their gardens. The conflict, of course, is about more than just shrubs and flowers. The Butleys and the Del Valles have different cultural backgrounds and those values are on display within their small plots of land. Can they learn to embrace their differences and live side by side?
Native Gardens will open at Arena Stage on September 15 and run through October 22. Reprising their roles from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and making their Arena debuts are Jacqueline Correa as Tania Del Valle and Sally Wingert as Virginia Butley. Once again Arena’s timing is impeccable, bringing to D.C. audiences a play that delves into issues very much on people’s minds. But despite those serious themes, the play also is filled with humor.
“This summer in Minnesota we’ve been playing to big houses and the laughter has been warm and fulsome,” says Wingert. “By the end of the play I feel like the audience has become a community through this shared experience, especially because they’ve really laughed together. I think it’s so much easier to begin difficult discussions when the atmosphere is relaxed and graced with humor.” In fact, Wingert says she was first attracted to the play because it was funny. “This production was slated for a summer run at the Guthrie and there’s nothing like doing a comedy in the summer,” she says. “Fun all around.”
Correa agrees. “We talked a lot in rehearsal about `disarming’ the audience with the humor,” she says. “I think humor allows people to relax- the shoulders release and people are in better place to hear things and have a conversation. Humor allows us to recognize ourselves without feeling overexposed or alienated.” Because of the humor, the play becomes a conversation starter. “Karen brings up a lot of important issues, but does it in a way that leaves the audience open to discussion,” Correa says.
The Del Valles are a Latino couple in their thirties. Tania, who was born and raised in New Mexico, is about to become a mother while she is finishing her PhD. Her husband, Pablo (Dan Domingues) is a senior associate in a prominent D.C. law firm. “Tania is smart, independent and very passionate in her beliefs,” says Correa. “She’s also very open and grounded. I think that’s what I like most about Tania – her willingness to engage in conversation.”
Virginia Butley and her husband, Frank (Steven Hendrickson), who might work for the C.I.A., are in their sixties. Wingert describes Virginia, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, as a “powerhouse.” “She is a feminist and has fought discrimination on the front lines in her chosen career,” says Wingert. “She adores her husband and loves being a mom. I can relate to all of that. Clearly Virginia has a right brain dominance, and she’s a little more clueless about her white privilege than I’d like to think I am, but I’m still coming to terms with my own ignorance in that regard. It’s an ongoing learning curve.”
On paper, the Del Valles and the Butleys boast many similarities. They are all educated professionals who have, despite obstacles, achieved the American dream, Tania and Pablo because of their ethnic backgrounds, and Virginia because she came from a blue collar family. But despite that commonality, their gardens bring out that their differences are ingrained and not easily dismissed. Frank Butley has won awards for his careful manicured Britsh-style garden. Tania believes gardens should be native, reflecting the flora that grows – or does not grow – naturally. The Butley’s garden, bursting with color, contrasts sharply with the Del Valle’s which is essentially a dirt patch. Let those conversations begin. “I think that when we make something personal or local for someone, the urgency becomes apparent and people feel more empowered to do something,” says Correa. “It’s more manageable if we talk about it on a personal level.”
Pressed to choose sides in the gardening battle, both women say that they see benefits in both points of view. Although not a gardener, Correa says her garden would probably be a hybrid. “I don’t think you have to choose one or the other,” she says. “Some transplants can do well in a native environment.” Wingert, says that her postage-stamp size garden in St.Paul, welcomes all types of blooms. “I plant pollinators and I don’t use chemicals, but I love some rather dramatic flowers that probably have no business here,” she says.
Both Correa and Wingert hope the play, set in D.C., will be appreciated by local audiences. “I have come to feel that almost anything I see, read, or hear today really resonates with our current political atmosphere,” Wingert says. “D.C. is ground zero. We are so excited to be here. We’ve been looking forward to it all summer.”
And while those attending don’t have to be gardeners, seeds will be planted for future discussions. “This play allows the audience to see themselves in each of the characters,” says Correa. “Hopefully, they can walk away being able to better understand all sides.”
Top photo: Jacqueline Correa and Sally Wingert – Photo by Dan Norman for Guthrie Theater
Written by Karen Zacarías
Directed by Blake Robison
1101 Sixth Street, SW