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Edited and Published by Robert W. McDowell

October 20, 2022 Issue
PART 5 (October 20, 2022)

A FREE Weekly E-mail Newsletter Covering Theater, Dance, Music, and Film in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill/Carrboro Area of North Carolina Since April 2001.


Karen Zacarías' Native Gardens at PlayMakers Rep
Provokes Laughter While Sparking Introspection

Karen Zacarías' Native Gardens on Oct. 12-30 at PlayMakers Rep stars (from left) Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julia Gibson as Frank
and Virginia Butley and Alejandro Rodriguez and Sarita Ocón as Pablo and Tania Del Valle (photo by HuthPhoto)

Watching PlayMakers Repertory Company's Wednesday, Oct. 19th, performance of Karen Zacarías' Native Gardens was like watching the live filming of CBS's hit family comedy Everybody Loves Raymond. It was easy to sit back, relax, and enjoy the comedic neighborhood drama unfolding before me.

The set is an inner suburban neighborhood at the height of gentrification -- two distinctly different townhouses, side by side. One is the newly painted, impeccably managed home and backyard of Frank and Virginia Butley, an upper-middle-aged, middle-upper-class, distinctly white American married couple played in believable caricature by longtime PRC actors Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Julia Gibson. Nextdoor is the dusty, ill-maintained, newly purchased home and lot of Pablo and Tania Del Valle, played with sincerity and genuine good will by Alejandro Rodriguez and Sarita Ocón.

The voluptuous flower beds in the Butleys' yard are bursting with such color and fullness that I swear I could smell them. As the play unfolds, we learn that those flower gardens are also impeccably unsustainable, incorporating non-native plants and toxic pesticides that kill beneficial insects and pollute the soil. This doesn't sit well with the well-educated, socially conscious, non-white-descended millennials who have moved in next door. But this is only the beginning of the frictions between the Del Valles and the Butley, frictions that become legally and logistically gray in ways that solicit empathy from the audience for both sides,

PlayMakers Repertory Company's presentation of Native Gardens stars Julia Gibson and Jeffrey Bair Cornell (photo by HuthPhoto)

The highlight for me was Julia Gibson's Virginia Butley, a Polish-American, female engineer from New York with a lot of heart, a big mouth, and an accent and attitude to boot. I started laughing every time it was her turn to speak. She immediately called to mind several people in my life, particularly my Polish-Lithuanian family in New Jersey and neighbors in the South Durham HOA where I used to live. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Blair Cornell provides support that draws even more chuckles, delivering his part punctually and without overacting, which is difficult given the reality of his often laughably trivial lines.

Somewhat contradictorily, I also connected with Tania Del Valle, who desires to make everybody happy (or "Be the Buddha," as a lawyer once advised my husband and me when we were in a similar debacle). Sarita Ocón convincingly portrays Tania's conflicting devotion to beneficial human and planetary relationships and her right to equity under the law, which make it impossible to take any pathway that is not confrontational.

Tania's references to native plants are STEAM education at its best, and Ocón plays Tania with the sincerity of a kindergarten teacher. Opposite her, Alejandro Rodriguez plays Pablo Del Valle with an intelligence and delight that makes his privileged past believable and his future success inevitable.

Alejandro Rodriguez and Sarita Ocón star in Native Gardens at PlayMakers Rep (photo by HuthPhoto)

The chemistry between the four main actors is enhanced by the musical transitions between scenes, which made me want to purchase the soundtrack (thank you, sound designer Abigail Nover). During the first of these transitions, Alfredo Hurtado made me laugh out loud when, as the surveyor, he danced on stage with machismo and staked his little orange flags. (It made me laugh even harder when I realized Hurtado is a Purple Heart Combat Wounded Warrior who served three tours with the Airborne Division of the U.S. Army.)

During subsequent musical transitions, the hispanic family hired by the De Valles for yard work reappear and wordlessly present their own subplot, as if it were a television commercial storyline. Cristina Duchesne-Rivera, Alfredo Hurtado, and Eunice Luna -- all making their PRC debuts -- engage with humor and affection that connects with the audience every time.

PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of Native Gardens stars Jeffrey Bair Cornell and Sarita Ocón (photo by HuthPhoto)

Director Patrick Torres, scenic and costume designer Junghyun Georgia Lee, stage manager Aspen Jackson, assistant stage manager Sarah Smiley, lighting designer Andrew Cissna, sound designer Abigail Nover, dramaturg Gregory Cable, vocal coach Gwendolyn Schwinke, and all the folks at PlayMakers Repertory Company deserve a round of applause for a production that provokes wholehearted laughter while sparking social introspection of the most immediate kind.

If you have kids in middle or high school -- or even if you don't -- it would be a shame for you to miss this opportunity for a fun, clean, intelligent night out. The play is only 90 minutes long; and there is no intermission, which leaves you with enough energy and time to continue your evening elsewhere.

NOTE: Incidentally, not too long ago I condensed my own reflections on non-native plants as immigrants versus colonizers into a poem entitled "Weeding" that I hope you'll enjoy reading, particularly if you've seen the play. -- M.R.

Native Gardens stars (from left) Jeffrey Bair Cornell, Julia Gibson, Alejandro Rodriguez, and Sarita Ocón (photo by HuthPhoto)

Karen Zacarías' NATIVE GARDENS (In Person at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, except 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23rd, Oct. 20-23 and 25-30), directed by Patrick Torres and starring (in alphabetical order) Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Frank Butley, Julia Gibson as Virginia Butley, Sarita Ocón as Tania Del Valle, and Alejandro Rodriguez as Pablo Del Valle, plus an Ensemble including Cristina Duchesne-Rivera, Alfredo Hurtado, and Eunice Luna (PlayMakers Repertory Company in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC-Chapel Hill's Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art). PLAYBILL: RESOURCE GUIDE: RAILER: VIDEOS: 2022-23 SEASON: PRC NEWS RELEASE: THE PRESENTER:,,,,, and PRC BLOG: THE VENUE: DIRECTIONS/PARKING: CAROLINA TOGETHER COVID-19 PAGE: THE PLAY: and THE SCRIPT (excerpts): THE PLAYWRIGHT:,,, and NOTE 1: Due to some mild language, this show is recommended for theatergoers aged 12+. NOTE 2: There will be a socially distanced performance at 7:30 p.m Tuesday, Oct. 25th shows will be . NOTE 3: At the end of the run, this show will be available to stream, with dates TBA. TICKETS: $20 and up ($10 students and youth), plus taxes and fees. Click here to buy tickets. INFORMATION: 919-962-7529 or PLEASE DONATE TO: PlayMakers Repertory Company.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A Durham, NC resident for 20 years, Melissa Rooney is a scientific editor, freelance writer, and author of several science-based children's picture books. She has published children's stories and verse in Highlights Children's Magazine and Bay Leaves. Rooney earned undergraduate degrees in English and Chemistry from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA; and she earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1998 from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her stories Eddie the Electron and The Fate of The Frog form the basis of two workshops offered through the Durham Arts Council's Culture and Arts in the Public Schools (CAPS) program, through which Rooney teaches elementary- and middle-school students about electrons and atoms or sustainability and rhyme, respectively. When she isn't writing, editing, reading, teaching, or experiencing theater, Rooney volunteers as an Associate Supervisor on the Durham's Soil and Water Conservation District.


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