Avid Atlanta theatergoers haven’t truly lived until they’ve witnessed the ordinarily refined actress Carolyn Cook — she of storied Blanche du Bois and Saint Joan fame — brandishing a chainsaw in the climactic moments of Aurora Theatre’s “Native Gardens,” a terrifically entertaining and shrewdly topical comedy by Karen Zacarias about a domestic dispute among neighbors that grows outrageously awry.
The action stems from adjoining backyards in an upscale D.C. suburb (immaculately set forth by those ever-astonishing scenic-designing sisters, Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay). On one side of a conspicuously crumbling chain-link fence, we meet Frank and Virginia Butley (a priceless pairing of Bart Hansard and Cook). On the other is a recently transplanted younger Latino couple, Pablo and Tania Del Valle (engaging newcomers Cristian Gonzalez and Fedra Ramirez-Olivares). If, as a Robert Frost poem goes, “good fences make good neighbors,” this fence doesn’t bode well.
Frank is a semi-retired consultant for an unnamed agency who now works from home, where he relieves his chronic stress by tending an elegant garden overflowing with a colorful variety of flowers, in hopes of one day finally winning his local horticultural society’s annual garden competition. Virginia is a defense contractor, seemingly the very picture of “gracious civility,” who dreams about someday holding their 40-year-old son’s wedding there (gay or not).
Meanwhile, Pablo is the new attorney at an “intensely white” law firm, possibly thanks to its “cultural outreach” initiative. And Tania is an environmentally conscious anthropologist, pregnant with their first child, who’s planning her own organic garden based on a philosophy of entomological biodiversity — in other words, “a bunch of weeds,” as Frank puts it good-naturedly (at least early on).
Frank’s only half-joking, as it soon develops. And so is Tania, when she later remarks to him that all of his beautiful flowers are basically “foreign to the natural environment,” like so many “immigrant plants eroding the ecosystem.” When the Butleys make a casual assumption about their new neighbors looking and sounding like they’re from “Mey-hico” (to quote Frank again), the Del Valles politely point out to them that Pablo’s Chilean, in fact, and Tania’s a “United Statesian” born and raised in New Mexico.
As Zacarias’ crackling dialogue makes abundantly clear, both of these couples can give as good as they get, whether it’s exchanging pleasantries, matching wits, casting aspersions, or finally standing and defending their ground against increasingly aggressive invasion. When the four of them learn that the chain-link fence dividing their houses is two feet off the mark — the property line actually extends well into one of Frank’s pristine flower beds — all manner of hilarious hell breaks loose.
Tempers inevitably flare, and hot-button sociopolitical discussion points about classism, racism and ageism bubble up. One couple’s sense of “impulsive entitlement” is another’s “stolen land.” What one may refer to as “adverse possession,” the other calls “squatter’s rights.”
“When things get this sensitive, clarity and purpose need to prevail,” Pablo tries to tell himself (and Tania), which proves easier said than done. “They may be Republicans,” she tries to convince him (or herself) in turn, “but they’re still people.”
Next door, Virginia scoffs to Frank, “With their level of sanctimony, they must be Democrats. We should give those kids a lesson in maturity.” Thus, when no one’s looking, she deliberately blows her second-hand cigarette smoke across the fence and into their yard. And Frank summarizes their frustration with the utterance of a single pseudo-“dirty” word (deliciously snarled by Hansard): “Millennials!”
True to the highly polarizing divisiveness of our times, audience members might to be inclined to take sides in the play’s neighborly feud. True to the wisely even-handed script, though, visiting director Daniel Jaquez’s pitch-perfect Aurora show is uncompromising in its refusal to — and all the more power to him for that.
Through June 2. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 10 a.m. Tuesdays (May 14 and 21 only). $20-$55. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222. www.auroratheatre.com.
Bottom line: Sharply written, briskly directed, keenly played.
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