The expression, “Good fences make good neighbors,” originated from a 1914 Robert Frost poem. It highlights the need for clear boundaries between folks with adjoining properties—and can be applied more broadly to the personal boundaries human beings need to coexist peacefully.

The idea is key in CVRep’s production of Native Gardens. Written by Karen Zacarias, the play tells the story of a young Hispanic couple, Tania and Pablo Del Valle (Marta Portillo and Andrew Joseph Perez), who have just moved into a fixer-upper in a lovely Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Their neighbors, Virginia and Frank Butley (Janellen Steininger and Dennis Gersten), are an older white couple who initially welcome them with open arms.

All four characters are accomplished professionals. Pablo is an attorney striving to become a partner at his law firm, and Tania (who is eight months pregnant) is finishing up her doctorate. Frank has a high-powered government job, and Virginia is an engineer at Lockheed Martin. Hoping to climb one more rung on the career ladder, Pablo has invited his colleagues over for a backyard barbecue. He and Tania make plans to spruce up their backyard, which had been neglected by the previous owner. This when the conflict begins.

Tania’s heart is set on indigenous, environmentally friendly plants and flowers. Across the fence, Frank—who has been trying for years to win a local gardening contest—firmly believes that a neatly trimmed, traditional garden filled with hydrangeas is best. At first, Frank is pleased with Tania and Pablo’s plans to replace the broken-down wire fence dividing their properties with a sturdier wooden one—but when a survey and official documents show that the Del Valles’ property extends two feet further into the Butley’s yard than either couple realized, things deteriorate quickly.

As the tension escalates, and insults are thrown back and forth. The dispute, which began over blossom choices, becomes about culture, race and class. Frank and Virginia are, at heart, decent people, though they think of Pablo and Tania as “Mexican” despite the fact that Tania was born in the United States. The Del Valles view the Butleys as aging, white, somewhat racist baby boomers who are set in their ways.

The cast is stellar across the board. Portillo’s Tania is a spitfire. Juggling pregnancy, the pursuit of a doctoral degree, a new home, a stressed-out husband and difficult neighbors, she’s understandably emotional. Portillo plays her with the perfect balance of histrionics and likability.

As Pablo, Perez is terrific. He’s a good guy, hardworking and ambitious—trying to provide a nice life for his wife and unborn child. When it seems that the neighbors are stymieing his goals, his anger is understandable.

Gersten is perfect as Frank. His obsession with beating his nemesis Philip Saxon in the local gardening contest is both comical and somewhat sad. His world seems to have shrunk to encompass just his perfectly manicured backyard.

Steininger is spot-on as Virginia. Witty and sharp as a tack, she does not suffer fools gladly. When Tania claims that weeds have a purpose, Virginia quips, “Isn’t their purpose to be ugly?” Yet years of workplace sexism as the only female engineer at Lockheed Martin have made her empathetic to her neighbors’ feelings of being outsiders.

Janellen Steininger and Marta Portillo in CVRep’s production of Native Gardens.

Kudos to director Michael Matthews. He’s drawn out wonderful performances from each of his actors, and keeps the onstage action moving; there’s never a dull moment.

Over the years, Jimmy Cuomo has created some very impressive sets, but he has outdone himself with Native Gardens. The set here is flawless.

Lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, sound designer Cricket Myers, and sound engineers Karlene “Kiki” Roller and Joshua Adams all do great work. The lighting choices and musical background throughout the production are superb.

Native Gardens is the final production for Ron Celona, CVRep’s founding artistic director, before he heads into retirement, He has once again chosen an entertaining, thought-provoking and well-written play. Native Gardens tackles racism, classism and differences in artistic taste. It will make you think about your origins—when we claim them, and when we don’t.

The show reminds me of a May Sarton quote: “A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs—like life itself.” Native Gardens is a wonderful theatrical experience; don’t miss it.

Native Gardens will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 24, at the CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City. Tickets are $53-$63; and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit

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Bonnie Gilgallon

Bonnie Gilgallon, a theater reviewer for the Independent since 2013, is an award-winning stage actress and singer who performs at many venues around the valley. She also hosts “The Culture Corner,”...