I went into Native Gardens anticipating a timely piece on some of today’s hot button issues. I was pleasantly surprised that it was not the heavy commentary that I had been gearing myself up for, but rather a light-hearted and hilarious poke at those same issues. A wonderful balance of message and laughs.
You walk in to see the stage transformed into two adjoining houses and backyards. The one on the right is immaculate with a lovely patio, manicured lawn, and flowers tended “just so.” The one on the left… not so much. And in-between is a decrepit chain-link fence. It is this fence that will ultimately lead to actual “turf” war (with some acorns and flowers as well) before the show is over. The set design is truly beautiful. Puffy clouds hang in the sky behind the large oak tree that stands in the Del Valle’s yard. As the show progresses you see that the “ground” was actually created in such a way that surveyors flags and flowers can be placed into them – a challenge for the build crew, to be sure. These easy changes are necessary as the Del Valle’s yard transforms throughout the show.
These transformations are carried out by the actors portraying the landscape technicians. I am generally not a fan of attempts at long, artistic scene changes, but Miguel Girona, Joey Octaviano, and Enver Siddiky keep them at just the right length. The artistry of the changes comes in the humor. The workers dance around the stage carrying out their duties in character, pausing now and again to catch a nap in the neighbors’ patio chair. The beauty of ensemble roles is the fun the actors can have in developing their characters and these gentlemen were clearly enjoying themselves.
John Ahlin and Beth Glover give the characters of Frank and Virginia Butley, respectively, just the right balance of pomp and kindness. Ahlin’s Frank is a gentle soul whose garden is his pride and joy. It is his baby. And like any momma bear, he can get hilariously defensive if his baby is under threat. Glover’s Virginia is indicative of the toughness her character has been forced to develop. Virginia had her own battles breaking into a traditionally male-dominated career field, and thus is ready for any perceived threat. At the same time, this struggle has made Virginia uniquely sensitive to society’s struggles. She and Frank are both genuinely good people, like all people they just sometimes make the wrong choices.
Michael Earle Fajardo and Alexandra Lemus likewise balance the inherent kindness of Pablo and Tania Del Valle with their conviction and passion. Pablo has been disowned, but has worked way up to a possible partnership at his law firm. Tania is working on her Ph.D. and pursuing her passion of the “native garden.” Fajardo and Lemus convey the patience and understanding of the Del Valle’s in the face of some of the Butley’s initial faux pas. At the same time, as the situation begins to deteriorate, Fajardo’s blend of proper and petty lead to some of the biggest laughs in the whole play. Lemus never strays from the core kindness of Tania, but sometimes even the kindest of pregnant ladies can be pushed too far. Lemus lets Tania appropriately lose her cool, but always brings her back to a place of understanding and reconciliation.
Native Gardens is a tale of the age old battle between neighbors and the current battle between culture and generation. The weapons of choice: acorns, cigarette ashes, oak tree leaves, and music. The warring sides debate the policies of horticultural immigration and “botanical xenophobia” versus vegetative colonialism. It is a chance for us to laugh at ourselves and realize, as the characters did, we are all far more alike than we are different.
Native Gardens runs at the Wells Theater through April 28th at the Wells Theater – you can get tickets here.
Virginia Stage Company is southeastern Virginia’s leading theatre destination, serving an audience of over 70,000 annually both at the Wells Theatre and throughout the community. Virginia Stage Company’s mission is to “enrich, educate, and entertain the region by creating and producing theatrical art of the highest quality.” This production will mark the first time that Virginia Stage has staged a production with multiple Latinx characters in leading roles.
John Ahlin (Frank Butley) makes his Virginia Stage debut. Broadway: Waiting for Godot, Journey’s End (2007 Tony Award Best Revival), The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Voices in the Dark, One Mo’ Time, Whoopee! and Macbeth. Off-Broadway: Orson Welles in Orson’s Shadow at Barrow Street Theatre, FPA’s A Man for All Seasons, Soho Playhouse’s ChipandGus, others. Regional: DC Shakespeare Theatre, Guthrie, The Kennedy Center, La Jolla Playhouse, Denver Center, St. Louis Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Pittsburgh Public Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Old Globe Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Studio Arena, New Jersey Shakes, McCarter Theatre, Syracuse Stage, George Street, Goodspeed, others. John has portrayed Falstaff 12 times. TV/Film: Law and Order: SVU, Late Night with David Letterman, Third Watch, The Education of Max Bickford, and the Coen Brothers’ movie Inside Llewyn Davis. Playwright: Gray Area; Los Angeles, Atlanta and Off-Broadway, ChipandGus; Baltimore Center Stage, 20th NYCFringe, Off-Broadway, Nem; Actors Theatre of Louisville, and My Witch: The Margaret Hamilton Stories; premiers this summer.
Michael Earle Fajardo (Pablo Del Valle) is delighted to make his Virginia Stage Company debut with Native Gardens. Some of his Off-Broadway credits include Prince Dolgorukov from Pushkin (hailed by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best new productions of 2018) and Frank from the east coast debut of Hilda by Marie NDiaye. Other New York Credits include Manuel from Illuminating Veronica by Rogelio Martinez and Edmund from a staged workshop of King Lear at The Public directed by James Lapine, with Kevin Kline as the title character. Regional credits include Mr. Wabash from Shakespeare In Love (Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park / Baltimore Center Stage) and Soranzo from ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (ACT, San Francisco). He has also worked in Television (Kings, Law & Order, One Life to Live), Film (the award winning short
Miguel Girona (Surveyor/Landscape Technician) is ecstatic to be making his VSC debut. As a local actor, Miguel has been on the boards of many area community theaters such as Generic Theatre, Little Theatre of Norfolk, Williamsburg Players, PCT and Panglossian. Other notable stage appearances include Solario/Solarino in The Merchant Of Venice, Sir Eglamour in Two Gentlemen of Verona and Messalla in Julius Caesar at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, Morrocco/Solario/Duke/Tubal in The Merchant of Venice at Quill Theater, as well as Officer Murphy in A Street Scene with the Virginia Opera.
Beth Glover (Virginia Butley) has been a professional actor in NYC for 30 years this year. Crazy. Where does the time go? Some highlights along the way have been Audrey in As You Like It, Shakespeare Theatre Company DC; Mamie in the world premiere of The Passion of Teresa Rae King, Triad Stage; Satan in the world premiere of Analog & Vinyl, Weston Playhouse; Edie & Big Edie in Grey Gardens, TheatreWorks (San Fran Critics Best Actress Award); Cora in Counsellor at Law, Peccadillo Theatre NYC; Lily in Take Me Along, Irish Rep. NYC. So lucky to be adding this great theatre and production to the highlights. Latest film Beyond the Night is now in wide release.
Alexandra Lemus (Tania Del Valle) is a New York City based actor, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Regional Theatre: Wolf at the Door (NJ Rep) Paloma (Kitchen Theatre Company) An Act of God (Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre) NY Theatre: Are We Human (New Ohio Theatre) LA Theatre: Den of Thieves (Stella Adler LA) Chicanas, Cholas, y Chisme (Casa 0101) Workshops: Used to Was, Maybe Did (Center Theatre Group ) The Madres (San Diego Rep) She writes, acts and produces content with comedy sketch group In the Moment. Trained at Stella Adler, Los Angeles. Grateful to be a part of this production and for the great cast and team behind it.
Also featured: Joseph Octaviano and Enver Siddiky