OWATONNA — It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood when Pablo and Tania Del Valle move into a picturesque, historic area of Washington, D.C. Their new neighbors, Frank and Virginia Butley, have lived in the area for years and are delighted to have permanent tenants next door.
However, when the young Del Valles make plans to replace their fence — and discover their property line extends two feet into the Butley’s prized English garden — things start to turn ugly and hilarity ensues.
The similarities and differences between the two couples, as well as the outcome of their small-scale border dispute, are the topics of the Little Theatre of Owatonna’s fall show, “Native Gardens.” Written by Karen Zacarias, the play explores classism, racism, generation gaps and, of course, backyard aesthetics.
“[The play] considers the compromises that we make to live next to somebody — to share a street or to share an apartment building — and how hard those compromises are because it’s your precious place,” says Wendy Rasp, who plays Virginia. “It’s your home.”
Although many of the issues that come up can be politicized — including the age and racial differences between the two couples — Rasp says she wouldn’t call the play political.
“Some of the fights are about the aesthetic of the backyard and property values,” agrees Wesley Schultz, who portrays Pablo, an up-and-coming lawyer.
The actors also emphasize the show’s humorous side.
“I really appreciate the way the writer made such controversial topics satirical,” notes Schultz. “She made it so that hopefully people can see things from two sides of the multiple themes that are brought up.”
In addition to the relationship between the couples, “Native Gardens” also explores the connections between the women, and within the pairs themselves.
“I think we find a lot of commonality between a more mature life and someone who’s just starting out,” says Rasp. “Virginia and Tania have a sweet conversation woman-to-woman, trying to find some resolution and compromise.”
“Which ends with me swearing at her in Spanish,” adds Emma Hellevik, who plays doctoral student Tania. She says, “Come if you want a good laugh, and to leave with a few questions.”
“It’s entertaining, there’s humor in it, but you’re going to leave with a modern-day message,” agrees actor Bill Wood, who portrays Frank. “People are different. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong.”
In addition to the humor in the dialogue, technical director Brenda Hager says fans of slapstick will also be entertained by the landscapers, four silent comedians who will come out to entertain while the leads change costumes backstage.
“They’re non-speaking roles, but they are hilarious,” she explains. “They are going to come out and they are going to make you laugh … they’re going do a little dance or throw bags of dirt.”
With only four main actors and four landscapers, “Native Gardens” is showcasing an unusually small cast for the theater. Although atypical, Hager says the play’s size may help the audience form relationships with the characters on stage.
“It’s more relatable, because it’s one person with more lines. You’re going to pick one person out, instead of seeing 20 people up with two or three lines,” she explains.
Stage manager Victoria Bartkowiak adds that the small cast helped the actors bond more quickly.
“That family feeling that you sometimes get with a show was almost instantly there between the cast,” she said.
Behind the scenes, Hager and director Linda Karnauskas also have a longstanding relationship. They’ve done their last three shows together and say at this point they can even finish each other’s sentences, making “Native Gardens” a true family affair.
“When you have a technical director, to do a good job, it has to be somebody where you know how they work and you have a relationship with them. Brenda and I were friends first, and she does a fabulous job,” says Karnauskas.
“If we didn’t like each other or if we didn’t know how the other person works or thinks and there was friction, I think that would come off on the actors so they wouldn’t be [cohesive],” Hager adds.
The two women say this level of comfort both on and off the stage has helped immensely with the production, and they hope it will translate to the audience as well.
“Anybody who has a neighbor, has been a neighbor, shares space or does anything with somebody else, you can identify with this,” says Karnauskas. “The two questions I would ask anybody who sees the show are, ‘Which character do you identify with? And, how would you deal with this situation?’ I think if we’re really honest, there’s a little bit of each of us in each person.”
Without ruining the surprise, Karnauskas notes that the ending is her favorite part of the play. Ultimately, she says, “Kindness is compromise.”
Owatonna residents will be able to see the couples’ resolution for themselves when the play opens with a 7:30 p.m. show on Oct. 18. Additional performances will take place at the same time on Oct. 19, 25 and 26. There will also be two matinee performances on Oct. 20 and 27, at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $17 for adults and $14 for students, and are available online at www.littletheatreofowatonna.org or at the theater’s box office. The office, located in the theater at 560 Dunnell Drive, will be open starting Oct. 14. Hours are 5 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 12:30 to 2 p.m. on Sundays.