By Jackson Riley
NATIVE GARDENS at Victory Gardens Theater is not unlike seeing a contemporary sitcom live on stage. The characters seem to exist in a heightened reality, and very little will take you by surprise. However, with masterful performances from Janet Ulrich Brooks and Gabriel Ruiz, you'll find yourself completely immersed in the familiar story.
Playwright Karen Zacarias' work flies by in a tight 90 minutes, allowing the events of the play to unfold like an avalanche. Once she has set her pieces into place, it's full steam ahead for a chaotic and hilarious finale. While Zacarias only toes the line of controversy, it isn't surprising that the production team of GARDENS didn't want to push the line too far. This play may have been shocking in a suburban setting, but for a Chicago premiere, it feels very PG. One can't fault a company for wanting to avoid some of the controversy surrounding other race-related plays in our city.
The outdoor set consists of two backyards with a fence down the middle, all of which is stunningly and realistically designed by William Boles. The events of the play begin when a Chilean man and his (New) Mexican wife move in next door to a posh, elitist white couple. There is some disagreement over property lines, which leads to heated arguments in every direction. The script does an excellent job of keeping things relatively even-handed. The boomers in the audience will most likely side with the older couple, while the younger crowd will relate more to the young couple. All of these characters make mistakes and say things that they can't take back. All four of them are doing the best they can, and all four of them make mistakes along the way.
Marti Lyons directs terrifically. Patrick Clear as the older gentleman obsessed with his garden approaches cartoonish territory in a few moments, but Brooks keeps their scenes grounded as his wife. She is a masterful performer, able to milk her comedic moments without turning into a caricature. Paloma Nozicka is extremely likable as the young pregnant woman, but she is out-acted by her peers. She never quite fits into the hilarious, natural world her colleagues have created.
A surprising number of things went unintentionally wrong at the press opening, including a broken chair (causing Ruiz to actually break character) and a failing water hose. Luckily, the production team of NATIVE GARDENS had the audience in the palm of their hands, and the farcical nature of the play made these moments fit right in.
NATIVE GARDENS is a comedic triumph with something for everyone, simultaneously acknowledging the issues of today while remaining accessible to patrons on every side of the aisle.
“Native Gardens” runs through July 2 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $60. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.