Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Victory Gardens’ production of NATIVE GARDENS is an utter delight. The writing is smart, the delivery is hilarious, and the surroundings are beautiful. This farce may fool you into thinking that it is simple plot revolving around a neighborly battle of boundaries, but it isn’t – this is a play that wields commentary about race and entitlement with swift aim, making incisions that cut deep.
NATIVE GARDENS focuses on two opposing couples: an older, wealthy white couple, Virginia and Frank Butley (Janet Ulrich Brooks and Patrick Clear), and a younger Latinx couple, Tania and Pablo Del Valle (Paloma Nozicka and Gabriel Ruiz). Their characters may literally be on opposite sides of the fence, but the actors’ ensemble work is tight. Each member of this ensemble carefully maintains an audience/actor relationship in which the audience is acknowledged enough to be part of the joke, but not so as to destroy the world of the play. Especially through Ulrich Brooks and Clear, there is an on-stage comfort and confidence in the text and direction, each of them unafraid of being the joke, instead of feeling the need to deliver it. These are actors without preciousness, and the show is all the better for it.
Like the performances, Marti Lyons seduces us with her seamless direction: tight transitions, clever blocking, and a mastery of pace. As in many a romantic affair, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment of first true love, but there’s no denying its hold. So enveloped with the story, I often found myself involuntarily responding vocally to the ebbs and flows, the smitten audience concurring as they stood in ovation before the final moment was even done.
It makes sense — in a play focusing on a fight over land and the ‘stuff’ on it — that part of the story’s potency relies on the visual. Yet it is no easy task to create convincing facsimiles of not one but two houses and their respective gardens, different types of moving fences, and a fully grown oak tree. Scenic and Props Designers William Boles, Mealah Heidenreich and Alec Long, along with Costume Designer Samantha C. Jones complete this challenge with – for the most part – a detailed and well-researched eye. The result is not only realistic, but striking, emphasizing through contrast of age, wealth, and race why the ownership of the contested land is so vital for each one.
Victory Gardens’ production of NATIVE GARDENS shows us why playwright Karen Zacarías was recently hailed by American Theatre Magazine as one of the most oft-produced playwrights in the nation. This is one of the most fun, funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time. Do yourself a favor and see it.
NATIVE GARDENS runs through July 2nd. For more information visit victorygardens.org