Review: Life Is Like a Sitcom in 'Native Gardens'

The beloved storytelling form of the situational comedy originated on the radio a century ago and they arguably had their heyday on Midcentury American television. Often formulaic, sitcoms continue to be irresistibly palatable to us, largely because of their big characters and the ways in which a problem is always resolved in a satisfying, pithy way.

In “Native Gardens,” Karen Zacarias’s 2015 satire currently in production at Farmers Alley Theatre, the sitcom literally takes the stage, transforming theatre goers into a live studio audience minus cameras, but including flashing “APPLAUSE” signs to help direct laughter and appreciation. 

On the face of it, the story is classic sitcom fare: surburban neighbors face a property dispute. But because of who the neighbors are, the story becomes representative of something much larger. Xenophobia. Border disputes. Immigration. Republicans vs Democrats. Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Entitlement vs self righteousness.

In short, we’re looking at a microcosm of our divisive culture. But instead of exhausting and horrifying us like watching the news does, it satisfies and heartens us. We’re looking at ourselves and laughing rather than crying, and couldn’t we all use a little more of that right now?

A significant part of the charm of this fine production directed by Christopher Llewyn Ramirez is its cartoonish quality. Sam Snow’s colorful set could be part of a block from Sesame Street, and Jason Frink’s lights, Carter Rice’s sound, and Savannah Draper’s props complete the vivid, comic picture. It’s a delightful playground on which the larger-than-life characters play.

Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Eduardo Curley and Amber Lee Ramos) are the young, upwardly-mobile Latinx couple, an attorney trying to make partner and a very pregnant PhD candidate, who have moved into the fixer-upper next door to the Frank and Virginia Butley (Paul Stroili and Diane Marie Wasnak), government and corporate careerists approaching retirement. Frank aspires to win first prize in the annual Potomac Horticultural Society gardening competition with his carefully manicured English garden, while Tania has her sights on restoring their yard to an eco-friendly, organic, native garden.

They both agree that removing the ugly chain-link fence in favor of a taller, wooden, more stately structure would improve the situation. However, when the Del Valles discover a discrepancy in the assumed property line and aim to reclaim what is rightfully theirs—even if it means destroying Frank’s prized rose bed—hostilities escalate and hilarity ensues.

The hilarity comes largely in the characters’ absurdly childish behavior, physical comedy, as well as the way they volley vitriol back and forth and cross boundaries real and perceived. The way Amber Lee Ramos wields her basketball belly and Diane Marie Wasnak takes to a chainsaw are but two terrific sight gags in this show.

But perhaps what is most satisfying here—surprisingly so—is the predictable ending. Everything works out for the best, exactly as we’d hoped (though even more ridiculous). Not that one side or the other wins, because ultimately that doesn’t really matter in this world where people can come together despite their differences. And if that’s something we the audience can see in ourselves through watching this seemingly light comedic play, then it has done more heavy lifting than we know.

Native Gardens
Farmers Alley Theatre
Jan. 25-Feb. 11


Photo Courtesy of Becky Klose / Klose2U Photography.