SALT LAKE CITY — Karen Zacarias’s 2019 play, Native Gardens, showing now at Pioneer Theatre in its regional debut and directed by Timothy Douglas, is a delightful comedy and look at human nature.
The plot of Native Gardens follows married young couple Tania (played by Katya Collazo) and Pablo Del Valle (played by Tito Livas) as they move next door to Frank (played by Michael Kostroff) and Virginia Butley (played by Kelly Coffield Park). The Del Valles are preparing their fixer-upper home for a party for Livas’s law firm firm so he can make partner. Meanwhile, Katya is pregnant, preparing to defend a dissertation, and is interested in native plants and gardens that complement the natural ecosystem. Pablo and Katya’s goals do not always align with each other, let alone their neighbors; the Kostoffs prize their garden, and Frank hopes to win an award for this year. The story explores how these new neighbors handle some disputes with gardens, property lines, and more.
Walking into the theater, the audience is first favored with the impressive set design by Jo Winiarski. Many people have been in neighborhoods where one house has been unoccupied and fallen into neglect, while the neighboring home is immaculate, thanks to the hard work of a meticulous gardener. Winiarski’s set brings this dynamic to life perfectly. Because the garden and landscape becomes such an integral part of the plot, the details in the set became more interesting and important throughout the duration of the show. The lovely flowers and perfectly kept lawn on the Butley side of the stage stands in stark contrast to the neglected and abandoned side of the Del Valle home. The appearance of the homes does not just create an environment for the action, but it also becomes an important symbol of the characters.
At the beginning of the production, there was an announcement that there had been an injury in the cast, and while the cast member was recovering well, there would be some mobility issues and assistive devices used that were not originally a part of the show. The show also used some members of the stage crew in a more visible fashion. None of these changes (except for one moment in an argument where the character used a chainsaw) felt out of place. Each of the actors continued the production with such precision, and it was impressive to watch how they incorporated this mobility issue into the show and the characters.
All four players had excellent chemistry, which let to an intriguing evening. Collazo and Livas interacted exactly as one would expect young people just starting out with new families and careers. Watching that play out in arguments against Park and Kostoff as the Butleys, a couple that have been together decades, added elements of their interactions with each other was part of the reason the comedy came off so well.
What was so well done with Zacarias’s comedy, though, was how beneath the lightheartedness were a lot of deep and difficult topics. Native Gardens tackles racism, ageism, classism, wealth, poverty, and the environment; it was astounding to see how much could be covered in a 90-minute show without an intermission. Moreover, Zacarias handles these issues without feeling preachy, and in the plays resolution, everyone can feel that their point of view is represented and heard. It is a joy to watch these actors use the script and their skills to show how simple human disagreements can lead to so much discord and disconnection was fascinating and impressive. It was also heartening to see how anger can quickly be changed to compassion when true need arises.
To detail about Native Gardens would rob the audience of the pleasure of discovering this wonderful play. The show plays through the rest of the week, and I hope that audiences will take the time to smell the roses of Pioneer Theatre Company’s Native Gardens and see this gem about the nuances in human arguments.