REVIEW: ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Gets Tested in the Meadow Brook Theatre Comedy, ‘Native Gardens’

Motivational speaker Wayne Dyer is credited with saying, “The only difference between a flower and a weed is judgment,” which perfectly sums up the premise of the comedy Native Gardens, by Karen Zacarías, running now through April 14, 2024, at Meadow Brook Theatre (MBT) on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

Set in a stately and affluent Washington D.C. neighborhood, young, idealistic Latinx couple Tania (Stefania Gonzalez) and Pablo (Michael De Souza) Del Valle have bought their dream fixer-upper home. Pablo is an ambitious Chilean lawyer looking to make his mark at his prestigious law firm, while Tania is pregnant and finishing her Ph.D. On the other side of the fence are older, established white couple Virginia (Mary Robin Roth) and Frank (Tobin Hissong) Butley.

All starts well as the new neighbors get to know each other. In a misguided attempt to bond with Pablo, Virginia asks him, “Are you the token?” concerning his position within the law firm. This exchange elicited a strong reaction from the audience and foreshadowed further micro-aggressions between the couples.

Despite their generational differences, they learn that they have a love of gardens. The Butley’s garden, which Frank obsesses over, is exceptionally manicured and filled with a profusion of beautiful blooms that he hopes will finally win him ‘best garden’ from the Potomac Horticultural Society. The Del Valle’s have plans for a more native garden filled with indigenous plants that reflect the geographic region and benefit the environment.

Do fences make good neighbors? Stefania Gonzalez, Michael De Souza, Tobin Hissong, and Mary Robin Roth find out in the comedy “Native Gardens” at Meadow Brook Theatre.
Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography

Desperate to impress his new boss, Pablo temporarily takes leave of his senses and invites his entire firm over for a backyard barbeque. With only a week to make it look presentable, Tania throws herself into getting everything ready and makes a shocking discovery — their property line extends two feet into the Butley’s beloved garden. This surprise sets up the showdown between the neighbors. Which is more important? The Del Valle’s party or the Butley’s stake in the garden competition? As you can imagine, the whole situation sours rapidly into an “us” versus “them” mentality where they are all pressing each other’s buttons about race and privilege. Sound familiar?

The feud escalates to preposterous proportions using dialogue that precariously balances between political and comedy. In short, given the state of things lately, Native Gardens is very relatable. De Souza, Gonzalez, Hissong, and Roth all give wonderfully authentic performances when they could have easily portrayed their characters as caricatures. Rounding out the cast are Sarita Alvarado, Raegan Cantrelle, Alexander Hernandez, and Jacob Lipski.

My takeaway is that in some shape or form, we all have privileges and that being a good neighbor comes with many challenges. At the conclusion of Native Gardens, a compromise has been reached between the Butleys and De Valles. In some ways, it feels a bit too neat given the back-and-forth banter leading up to it. On the other hand, I like the idea that even with all our political, social, and cultural differences we can find common ground to stand on. And from there, we can let our ideals take hold to bloom into something beautiful. As Virginia says, “Just because you don’t like what you hear, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen.”

I could tell the opening night audience enjoyed the show, as did I. Zacarías has created a landscape where ideas clash, but there’s also an opportunity for growth with a lot of laughter along the way.

Native Gardens is directed by Travis W. Walter. Scenic design is by Christa Tausney, costume design by Krista Brown, lighting design by Neil Koivu, and sound design by Mike Duncan. Brittanie Nichole Sicker is the stage manager and Stacy White is the assistant stage manager.

Native Gardens runs 90 minutes without an intermission and is suggested for audience members in high school and up.

Tickets range from $37 to $46 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online at Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing.

About Sarah Hovis

Freelance wordsmith, arts appreciator, grammar geek, sports spectator, stationery snob, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at

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