Smile Politely

A rare wildflower flourishes in Illinois Theatre’s Native Gardens

“Don’t you like wild flowers?!” demands Tanía, a pregnant, Native New Mexican doctoral candidate, portrayed with tenacious compassion by Amy Toruño. Idealistic yet pragmatic, Tanía del Valle hilariously balances cutting edge knowledge with timeworn wisdom, as Toruño delivers witty retorts with relatable charm.

Native Gardens blooms onto the meticulously curated stage of Colwell Playhouse at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in a splendid farce with a conscience. Karen Zacarías, the author, gives us her reflection of two couples and their lush symbolic surroundings. Timely and sharp, catch this incredible one act on how we deal with fences—in the building and the mending.

“Good fences make good… friends?” asks Pablo.

“Neighbors,” corrects Frank Butley, the simultaneously hotheaded and wholesome Jimmy Ladd, who pridefully sees his garden and yard as the manifestation of his hard work, making this allegory deeply personal.

Co-directed by Aaron Muñoz and J.W. Morrissette, this sensitive satire mirrors and lampoons our human struggle to grow ‘nicely’ together. Native Gardens is a captivating comedy of petty errors and divine clemency, with a magnificent cast. Flawlessly choreographed scene changes and a superb creative team give us a consistently glorious visual palette.

“An inch becomes a foot, [a foot] becomes a yard!” insists the charismatic, energetic Pablo del Valle, ambitious lawyer. Daniel Rivera, as Pablo, projects such earnest enthusiasm that audience longs to root for his一occasionally flawed一vision of the American Dream.

Two parallel homes, immaculately designed by Blaine Fuson, and lit by Quinn Schuster, give instant impressions of two families. Leaves are cheerfully strewn across one lawn: a landscape of round edges, a sun-dappled tree, and functional objects. Signs of loving home improvement abound, with an exterior painted crisp mint green and navy. Opposite, a buttercream and brick wall façade, furniture evocative of white lace, and an unblemished lawn reflect their neighbors’ old money, traditional values, and intensely precise weed removal.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann.

Native Gardens demonstrates the vitality and importance of platforming diverse voices and creators with this impeccable, approachable play. Weaving Spanish and English with the style and skill of a truly brilliant bilingual voice, Zacarías effortlessly deploys wordplay, puns, and double meanings into her narrative. With not an instant wasted, each new statement一 pantomime, lines chanted in unison, miscommunication, mistranslation一intensifies the thorny situation.

“[They want] to mow us down for our lawns!” grimly warns Virginia Butley, a quixotic, quirky, conservative woman, who breathes hysterical non-sequiturs and cringeworthy micro-aggressions. Rachael Fox, courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association, refuses to give a one-dimensional portrayal, radiating Kate McKinnon energy, in the best of ways.

Photo by Darrell Hoemann.

Reverberating with things both said and unsaid, Native Gardens wrings laughter, sighs, spontaneous cheers, and apt, tense pauses, from the audience, longing for popcorn. Perhaps more than one of us felt misty at the return of such spectacular live performances. Candidly, in my case, this surrealist piece, packed with heart and nuance, found me eagerly standing for the final ovation.

Native Gardens
Illinois Theater
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Colwell Playhouse
500 S Goodwin Ave, Urbana
October 20th-23rd
W – F 7:30 p.m.
Sa 2 p.m.

Top photo by Darrell Hoemann

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