The latest production from Portland Stage may plant a few prickly thoughts in the minds of theatergoers. But “Native Gardens” surrounds any edginess with so much color and warmth that audiences are likely to find themselves safely embedded in their happy place by the end.

From left, Jose-Maria Aguila, Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Laura Houck and Mitch Tebo in a scene from “Native Gardens” Photo by Mical Hutson

One neighbor wants to win a horticultural contest, while the other wants to impress his new boss. The sparks began to fly when tight deadlines and opposing philosophies lead to boundary disputes in this enchanting little play by Karen Zacarias. Full of laughs, both thoughtful and zany, and some relatively gentle messaging, “Native Gardens” reassures us that good things will continue to break through the surface, if well nurtured.

In Potomac, Maryland, young couple Pablo and Tania, he an up-and-coming lawyer and she a pregnant Ph.D. candidate, move in next to older, established couple Frank and Virginia, he a semiretired government employee and she an engineer. Frank’s formal “European” garden doesn’t meet with the approval of Tania, who favors gardens reflecting indigenous varieties. Paeans to biodiversity are countered with accusations of “botanical xenophobia” as the neighbors get to know each other enough to speak their minds.

All agree, though, that an old fence separating their properties needs to be hurriedly replaced. Pablo, on short notice to Tania, has invited his colleagues over for a barbecue in a not-well-kept backyard and Frank is expecting judges to look at his garden and would like it newly framed.  The serious trouble arises when it is learned that the existing fence did not accurately divide the two lots and that some of Frank’s flower beds flourish on land belonging to Pablo and Tania.

With everybody’s backs up, insults and accusations fly, some legalistic and some very personal, reflecting all sorts of stereotypes and prejudices. Though telling, the sentiments raised are hilariously presented with the character’s reactions often more silly than sinister.

Director Jade King Carroll has developed this fast-paced show to quickly bring out the comedic gifts of the excellent cast.

Octavia Chavez-Richmond is particularly effective as sweetheart Tania. Her character’s bouts of feistiness elevate many scenes. Jose-Maria Aguila’s Pablo plays off his wife’s idealism with reactions that show his legal training not entirely suited to backyard brawls. The actor’s talents at physical humor complimented those of Chavez-Richmond. Both amusingly show their character’s struggles to rein in a nerved-up impulsiveness.

Mitch Tebo and Laura Houck seize on moments when their normally “stately” Frank and Virginia go off the rails in petty acts of sabotage culminating in a rapid-fire counterpoint of scenes across the two backyards. They are “elders’ but ultimately reveal an openness that reassures.

The visually rich set design by Anita Stewart effectively fosters a feeling for the growing diversity within suburban life as well as sowing thoughts of the season ahead.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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