I recently had a discussion with a fellow blogger about how we write around personal issues. Our generation does not often openly release posts about distressing events. We are more likely to write about pleasant activities. This is not to imply that we do not experience conflict and challenges. We just do not consider these topics as public stories to put out for the world to read. I joked that often I write about national issues (e.g. Dept. of Alternative Facts) when I am really talking around some more local events with my neighbors. Karen Zacarias’ play, Native Gardens, at Arena Stage reverses the format. Zacarias addresses national and international conflicts through the exchange of two neighbors over the property line of their backyards.
As we enter the theatre, we see two backyards in high contrast. To our right is a meticulously managed pocket-yard of neat lawn, low hedges, and colorful flower beds. To our left is a neglected yard of dirt, fallen leaves, acorns, and withered plants. Between the two properties is a broken chain-link fence overgrown with ivy.
We soon learn that Frank Butley (Steven Hendrickson) and Virginia Butley (Sally Wingret) have lived in this old, Washington, D.C. neighborhood for decades. Since retirement, Frank has invested his energy into beautifying his yard and competing in the annual gardening competition, which he constantly looses to another neighbor.
The derelict home has just be purchased by a young couple, Tania Del Valle (Jacqueline Correa) and Pablo Del Valle (Dan Domingues). They look forward to fixing up the row house and establishing a native plant garden.
The neighbors greet each other, visit, talk about vision for their homes and neighborhood. This seems like a pleasant exchange of ideas, until quickly we observe that they bring different generational and cultural expectations. Words that are said and words that are heard become a confusing series of misunderstandings and assumptions. Each side walks away with uneasy impressions and sense of being offended.
They continue to attempt to be civil. But, the words continue to unwind what they may have attempted to say. The Butley’s flowers bed become foreign plants devoid of native pollinators. Tania’s New Mexico roots and Pablo’s Chilean heritage become lumped into being “Mexicans”. Ambition become greed. Being assertive becomes disrespect toward elders. Adverse possession of property beyond the property line become squatter’s rights.
The conflict in the play becomes apparent when the Del Valle’s suggest removing the haggard chain-link fence and replacing it with a six-foot tall privacy fence. The Butley’s are thrilled at the discarding the eye-sore, which the prior owner of the Del Valle’s home has put up. However, in checking the fence position, the Del Valle’s realize that the fence is two feet short of the actual property line, thus the Butley’s flower beds which grow up to the old fence are technically on the Del Valle’s property.
While the plot is about a fence, it is more about social boundaries and how these divide us more than unite us. Tania quotes Robert Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, “Fences make good neighbors”. But, Zacarias understands that Frost was not advocating fences in his poem. She realizes that the neighbor, whom Frost’s speaker meets with each year, mumbles this line because he does not realize that some force great than they is continually deconstructing the wall.
Zacarias uses words skillfully to deconstruct the walls that those same words try to use to fence us into our perceptions of our lives. She demonstrates that the escalation of insults is about petty, meaningless concepts. When a real crisis actually occurs, the neighbors respond to the situation with mutual assistance. This realization that they have been feuding needlessly, allows them to recognize their rigidity of thought and to find comprises in their garden designs and how to mark the property line.
Applying these ideas to national politics and culture, we might questions how rigidly we view our party affiliation, or ancestors’ involvement in wars, or how we determine who owns a property or business assets… or maybe I could write about my neighbors who recently told me that they grant me the right-of-way for the road on my property… as soon as they pay the taxes for the land, they can claim to grant me a right-of-way…