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Native Gardens - A Blooming Relationship Nearly Nipped in the Bud


Juan Rivera Lebron (Pablo), Cotter Smith (Frank), Laurie Klatscher (Virginia) and Evelyn Hernandez (Tania) Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover all photos

    Let me tell you! After getting to my seat at City Theatre, I turned around toward the stage and stood aghast in amazement. Right before my eyes was a breathtaking set, full of color, perfectly timely for a first day of spring.

    I’ve been a fan of set designer, Tony Ferrieri, for years. He’s dazzled me before numerous times with his intricately creative sets. This one for a staging of Native Gardens at City Theatre may just be one of his best yet.

    The task of replicating two upscale townhouses in a posh area of our nation’s capital with very dissimilar back yards complete with a towering oak tree seems daunting to me. I wouldn’t know where to start, but Ferrieri put his years of experience to good use and created a dazzler so in-your-face, it almost assumes the role of one of the comedy drama’s characters.

    Peopling this al fresco setting are two couples whose houses and properties are a bit too close to one another. Their back yards don’t seem to afford them much privacy. They could give prying eyes and nebbish-y neighbors an all-too-convenient vantage point.

    Frank and Virginia (Cotter Smith and Laurie Klatscher respectively) are retired sexagenarians living the good life. Pablo and Tania (Juan Rivera Lebron and Evelyn Hernandez) are younger, upwardly mobile, educated and motivated. Both have a Latino background while Frank and Virginia are WASPs to the core.

Cotter Smith (Frank) at work in his garden

    Early on, we find Frank puttering around his immaculately trimmed, weeded and flourishing garden of blue hydrangeas and red geraniums. Frank is obsessively punctilious when it comes to maintaining his horticultural pursuits. He has had his eye on winning the local garden club contest, which as been going on for years. So far, he’s only come up empty.

    Virginia is much more relaxed, sociable and easy going. When she and her husband meet their new neighbors, she is the most gracious and welcoming of the quartet.

    The initial neighborly encounter starts off well. It’s all good will, harmony and well wishing. The established couple are pleased  to learn that Pablo works for a prestigious law firm and that pregnant Tania is working on her Doctorate.

    Things begin to take a different tone when Tania reveals her intent to cultivate native plants in a more natural setting, something that sets alarm bells ringing in Frank’s mind. How would that affect the look of his adjacent property he begins to wonder. Clashing ecosystems, he and she envision.

    And what about the huge oak tree that drops leaves and acorns in the fall, which means more work and maintenance on Frank’s part. On the other hand, when Frank suggests Pablo and Tania consider cutting down the tree, Tania is especially horrified by the thought of using a chainsaw to fell such a majestic specimen. It’s yet another object of contention.

Evelyn Hernandez (Tania) Tree Hugging Her Oak

    Differing horticultural philosophies are one thing, but the stakes get even higher when it’s discovered that the property line is out of kilter. The younger couple, it appears, is entitled to a couple feet more of real estate along the line that extends along the edge of the adjoining back yards.

    The matter becomes urgent because Frank’s garden club contest is imminent at a time when  Pablo and Tania are hosting a back yard barbecue for Pablo’s law firm. The newly planned fence that rights the property dispute needs to be erected before the barbecue, which would destroy the carefully planned garden aesthetic Frank so scrupulously cultivates.

    Playwright Karen Zacarias cleverly ratchets up the intensity of the dispute over a good portion of the play, scripting an arc of neighborly relations that start off well but soon heat up the abandonment of social niceties. The gardening gloves come off ,and the boxing gloves go on.

    Director Marc Masterson keeps the brawl, which sometimes descends into comedic silliness, from getting out of hand. He insures the civil qualities of all parties concerned overcome any chance for violence. After all, the play is a comedy despite its venturing into some vexing social, ethnic and cultural issues.

    Pablo, the most fiery and hot-headed of the quartet, is followed in degree by Tania and Frank. Virginia is the most reluctant to slink into the brawl, but, she too eventually succumbs to the heat of the moment. All four get territorial as the tensions mount.

    How do you extricate the plot from this melee to create a satisfying conclusion you ask. Zacarias takes a sort of deus ex machina approach to bring things to a satisfying close. It’s one that comes unexpectedly, but it’s one that sure feels like a digestible antidote.  As the lady in Gypsy so famously once sang “Everything’s Coming up Roses.”

    Native Gardens is at the City Theatre on Pittsvburgh’s South Side through April 2. For more information and tickets, phone 412-431-2489.  


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