The Omaha Community Playhouse has been having a lot of success lately with actors from its Henry Fonda Theatre Academy.
Karen Fox, a newcomer to the stage, was phenomenal in “A Raisin in the Sun” in January. She decided to audition for a major role in the show after taking a class at the Playhouse.
Now comes Giovanni Quezada in “Native Gardens,” which premiered Friday night in the Playhouse’s small Howard Drew Theatre. He has a bit more stage experience than Fox, having appeared in shows at the Florence Community Theater and the Bellevue Little Theatre, but this is his first Playhouse gig. And it happened after he studied at the Playhouse academy.
Obviously, the academy is doing something right.
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Quezada shows acting prowess that belies his youth as a Hispanic attorney at a Washington, D.C., law firm in Karen Zacarias’ 2016 play that, on its face, is about feuding neighbors. And his fellow cast members — Playhouse veterans Dennis Collins and Mary Kelly and University of Nebraska at Omaha student Alyssa Isabel Gonzalez — are just as good.
The result is 90 minutes of captivating comedy that has something to say about a lot of current topics: politics, immigration, the environment and our ability to transcend our differences over these things and live peacefully. “Native Gardens” makes its point with pratfalls and funny, pointed dialogue without being overly preachy.
Ginny (Kelly) and Frank Butley (Collins) are an older, established couple in an upscale D.C. neighborhood. Tania (Gonzalez) and Pablo Del Valle (Quezada) move in next door. The foursome is friendly at first — the Butleys take the Del Valles a welcome gift — but things soon deteriorate over gardening styles and a fence. Frank is proud of his backyard and the toil it took to get it orderly and pristine. Tania wants a backyard that’s more in tune with the region in which she lives. She wants to use native plants, not those that originate elsewhere, like Frank’s English Ivy.
Pablo primarily wants to prove himself and become a partner in his prestigious law firm. He recklessly invites 60 people from the office over for a barbecue that’s to take place in just seven days, putting more than a little pressure on his pregnant wife.
The more the couples try to reach accord, the more misunderstandings grow, until they’re fighting about way more than shrubs and trees.
It gets personal. “They’re Democrats,” one couple sneers. “They’re Republicans,” the others say with scorn. Talk turns to ethnicity and racism. And though the play was written before the current administration in Washington, the fence in question now seems like an allusion to a certain wall.
I can’t overstate how the cast and director Ablan Roblin pull this off. You can tell that they gelled in rehearsals more than many ensembles, which gives each acrimonious scene a realism that might be missing with different actors. There were the usual preview-night dialogue gaffes and forgotten lines and cues, but scenes were so natural, it seemed like they were built in.
No actual ages are established for the Butleys, allowing Collins to play the character on the older side, with an entirely believable irascibility. Kelly’s Ginny starts out as the calmer voice of reason. Gonzalez’s Tania, meanwhile, is sweet yet steely in her resolve, even as she’s loath to disrespect her elders. And Quezada is a natural comedian.
The audience loved every minute of it, hooting with laughter and gasping at surprises, much as you do at home in front of your TV.
With Zacarias’ script, that makes sense. It has a definite sitcom style in which some of the situations are exaggerated to make a point. Sometimes, it tiptoes to the edge of trite. The ending especially feels that way, but even if you have an inkling of what’s about to come, you won’t care. It’s all in the execution.
For her first production at the Playhouse, costume designer Jennifer Sheshko Wood aptly dresses her characters while giving them distinctions. Watch Frank’s socks, for instance. Jim Othuse was up to the challenge of designing a backyard set that changes as the play progresses. John Gibilisco’s sound almost eerily matches neighborhood noises such as birds singing and dogs barking while incorporating original music by Tim Vallier.
This 90-minute play seems about half that long because it moves fast and deals with topics everyone can relate to. It’s almost impossible to live near people and not have the occasional tiff.
Here’s to watching the fight take place onstage, and not on the street where you live.