Review: Native Gardens (Victory Gardens Theater)

| June 22, 2017

Janet Ulrich Brooks, Patrick Clear, Gabriel Ruiz and Paloma Nozicka star in Native Gardens, Victory Gardens Theater           


Native Gardens

Written by Karen Zacarias 
VG Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru July 2  |  tix: $20-$60  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    


Hilarious ‘Gardens’ is about way more than plants


Janet Ulrich Brooks, Patrick Clear, Gabriel Ruiz and Paloma Nozicka star in Native Gardens, Victory Gardens Theater

Victory Gardens Theater presents
Native Gardens

Review by Catey Sullivan

Holy Virginia Creeper On a Stick. Not since before the November election have I laughed as long, hard and cathartically as I did at Karen ZacariasNative Gardens.

If you’re among those who’ve been trudging along dogged by by a miasma of rage and gloom for the past six-or-so months, you will find an antidote at the Victory Gardens. Related: Actor Gabriel Ruiz is slowly but surely turning into the the season’s MVP.

Patrick Clear and Paloma Nozicka star as Frank and Tania in Native Gardens, Victory Gardens TheaterUnderstand, however, that there is more than gut-busting comedy in Native Gardens. In the story of two couples with clashing ideas about gardening (among other things), Zacarias says plenty about racism, entitlement and privilege and the blithe lack of awareness that so often accompanies them all.

Set in a leafy enclave of stately homes in suburban Washington, D.C., Native Gardens centers on two couples. Long-time residents Frank (Patrick Clear) and Virginia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) Butley couldn’t be more waspish if they sprouted wings and stingers. They’re the embodiment of a Polo by Ralph Lauren advertorial.

Since retiring, Frank’s raison d’etre is his garden, an impeccably manicured landscape of meticulously sculpted shrubbery, precisely plotted hydrangeas, artfully draped English ivy. Never mind that his garden is drenched with toxic insecticides and filled with non-native plants that keep environmentally crucial insect species far away. Frank’s landscaping is as genteely elegant as a perfectly calculated geometry equation.

When Tania (Paloma Nozicka) and Pablo (Ruiz) move in next door, all is initially cordial and neighborly. Virginia brings the newcomers wine and chocolate. Tania and Pablo beam from beneath the gorgeous old oak sheltering their yard. And at least, to begin with, it seems like Virginia and Frank’s tone-deaf micro-aggressions (asking Tania repeatedly where she’s from, jovially calling Pablo “amigo”) are relatively harmless rather than consciously abusive.

Things change after the Del Valles learn that their property line actually extends some three feet beyond chainlink fence separating the yards. Frank’s beloved, environmentally unsound hydrangeas are actually on the Del Valle’s land. Suddenly, congenially discussed disagreements about the role of insects and native plants escalate into cage-match ferocity.

Before long, polite, smiling Virginia is wielding a chain saw with deadly intent. Frank has worked himself up into the sort of tomato-red apoplexy that presages a stroke or a heart attack. And Tania and Pablo? Suffice to say they are not to be trifled with. With Pablo goes into full-on battle mode, it’s with a howling passion that’s downright primal.

Janet Ulrich Brooks and Paloma Nozicka star as Virginia and Tania in Native Gardnes

Director Marti Lyons keeps the pace propulsive – every moment of Native Gardens is in the service of the story or the characters, right down to the amusingly choreographed scene changes. Like the pace of the production, Lyons’ cast is unstoppable.

Nozicka’s Tania has the protective instincts of a mama bear and the formidable intelligence of a scholar. At roughly eight months pregnant and a botanist by trade, Tania is both of those things. She’s ardent about protecting the earth, and gardening in a way that nurtures and nourishes the land. She’s also inclined to believe the best of people – something that becomes harder and harder to do when it comes to Virginia and Frank.

Brooks’ Virginia makes the older couple’s flaws blatantly obvious, even when Virginia is all smiling congeniality. Smiling or not, Virginia is a master of micro-aggressions – one of those women who asks things like “but where are you really from” when making conversation with people darker than she is. That’s the least of Virginia and Frank’s racially-motivated transgressions. Mexico, per Virginia, is “all about Cancun.” When she learns that Pablo was raised in Chile and Tania in New Mexico, Virginia seems unable to reconcile herself with the fact that the couple isn’t “Mexican.”

In Brooks’ hands, Virginia’s entitlement is at once enraging and comically entertaining. Never mind the surveys and deeds that prove the Del Valle’s land extends to Frank’s flowerbeds. Virginia and Frank say the land is theirs, because it has always been theirs. It’s the kind of specious argument that’ll give you a headache and an ulcer when you try to reason with the people making it.

If Brooks is the unleashed dragon in the Butley home, Clear plays Frank as a truculent child who can’t understand why he has to give back the cookies he stole. There’s something both juvenile and pathetic in Clear’s performance. And like a troubled child, Frank elicits a certain degree of empathy. Unlike his wife, Frank seems genuinely unable to understand the fact that he’s in the wrong. Virginia understands that the property deed isn’t lying, but decides it’s wrong simply because she thinks it’s unjust.

Then there’s Ruiz’s Pablo. As high powered attorney on track to become the first Latinx partner in his prestigious law firm, Pablo would clearly make a fearsome opponent in court. (Or even taking a deposition for that matter). Raised with servants and silver spoons, Pablo’s Chilean roots are as privileged as the Butleys. But as the Butleys make clear, Pablo’s status in the the Butley’s eyes has little to do with the reality of his background.

Pablo’s tolerance for ignorance simmers like a slow-burning fuse throughout Native Gardens. And like a fuse, he ultimately explodes in a scene that’s searingly memorable for both the unfettered bravado Pablo embraces and the sheer hilariousness of its machismo expression. Ruiz doesn’t just steal that scene. He commits full-on larceny. And it is breathtakingly satisfying.

Janet Ulrich Brooks, Patrick Clear, Gabriel Ruiz and Paloma Nozicka star in Native Gardens, Victory Gardens

Scenic designer William Boles has filled the stage with two intricately detailed backyards backed by gracious homes that perfectly illustrate both the neighborhood and the individual homeowners. Frank’s persnickety flower arrangements are petal-perfect. The Del Valle’s acorn-and-leaf strewn property sits in stark contrast, its majestic oak a thing of wild beauty.

Zacarias’ ending is a bit too easy – she ties things up as tidily as a beribboned corsage. But given the depth and breadth of all that precedes it, that final epilogue is easy to forgive (and not entirely unlikely).

There’s one thing more that’s both important and impressive about Native Gardens. Zacarias never hammers on the metaphor, or even overtly points to it. But the struggles of the Butleys and the Del Valles exemplify a whole lot more than two neighbors arguing about gardening philosophies.

Victory Gardens’ production is a play about race, entitlement and the kind of bigotry that comes cloaked in nice manners and seemingly gracious gestures. You don’t need to be a master gardener to see that Native Gardens is about far more than plants.

Rating: ★★★½

Native Gardens continues through July 2nd at VG Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20-$60 (students: $15), and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or online at for half-price tickets at More information at time: play length, includes an intermission)

Gabriel Ruiz and Paloma Nozicka star as Pablo and Tania in Native Gardens, Victory Gardens Theater

Photos by Liz Lauren




Patrick Clear (Frank Butley), Paloma Nozicka (Tania Del Valle), Gabriel Ruiz (Pablo Del Valle), Janet Ulrich Brooks (Virginia Butley), Debbie Banos, Ernesto Martinez, Daniel Mendoza (ensemble).

behind the scenes

Marti Lyons (director), William Boles (set design), Samantha C. Jones (costume design), Keith Parham (lighting design), Mikhail Fiksel (sound design), Alec Long (props), Jaq Seifert (fight choreography), Alyssa Vera Ramos (assistant director), Isaac Gomez (dramaturg), Tina Jack (stage manager), Liz Lauren (photos)


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Biograph Theatre, Catey Sullivan, Comedy, Victory Gardens, Video

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