The Ups and Downs of Strong Women

Audiences will laugh and gasp at Karen Zacarías’ amusing Native Gardens at the Cincinnati Playhouse and feel troubled by the plight of a fighter pilot in George Brant’s gripping Grounded at Ensemble Theatre.

Native Gardens
Native Gardens

Critic’s Picks

Plays about strong women are on several Cincinnati stages this month — frivolous and serious, but reflective of the broad spectrum of roles women play in American society today. Audiences will laugh and gasp at Karen Zacarías’ amusing Native Gardens at the Cincinnati Playhouse and feel troubled by the plight of a fighter pilot in George Brant’s gripping Grounded at Ensemble Theatre.

Zacarías uses comedy to explore some not-so-funny issues including racism and ageism, but she does it so deftly that you don’t even quite realize that the humor is revelatory of underlying prejudices. The show’s four characters are somewhat caricatured, but in ways that feel both contemporary and real. New homeowners Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Gabriel Ruiz and Sabina Zuniga Varela) are young professionals; he’s a rising attorney at a Washington, D.C., law firm (the first Hispanic to be hired there, facing pressure to show he can run with the big dogs), while she’s an academic, completing a Ph.D. in anthropology focused on racial stereotyping. She’s also immensely pregnant.

Their next-door neighbors are Frank and Virginia Butley (John Lescault and Karen Ziemba). In retirement, he fusses endlessly over a spectacular flower garden; she’s still working as an engineer. The Butleys’ garden is a lush, showplace; it’s abutted by the Del Valle’s newly purchased back yard, a desolate space of bare earth, dead plants, chain-link fence and an immense oak tree. (Joseph P. Tilford’s scenic, side-by-side Victorian houses, one spic-and-span and one an obvious fixer-upper, is picture perfect.)

The show’s opening moments make it obvious that a turf war is inevitable over styles of gardening (Tania is borderline militant about being as natural and insecticide-free as possible, while Frank yearns to win a horticultural society award for formal gardening after several years of honorable mentions), but there are more serious undercurrents about understanding, getting along and finding ways to compromise.

Fiery Tania and strong-minded Virginia — smart, professional women from different generations — cross swords more than once. The men are simpler, more one-note, but get their own comic moments. Zacarías has written a witty, contemporary script, and Blake Robison, the Playhouse’s artistic director, stages it in 80 quick, sharp minutes, separating scenes with amusing musical snatches that capture or distill emotions. On opening night, the audience was along for the amusing ride from the get-go, laughing and expressing occasional shock at feckless or provocative remarks.

• George Brant’s Grounded has very little in the way of humor. Kathleen Wise is the show’s solo performer as “The Pilot,” a hot-dog, no-nonsense Air Force F-16 warrior who lives to be “in the blue.” But an unexpected pregnancy leads to marriage and parenthood, and she’s reassigned to what she disdainfully calls the “chair force,” a cadre of flyers relegated to air-conditioned trailers in the desert outside of Las Vegas, piloting drones seeking to deliver “personality strikes” against enemies in the Middle East.

At the end of every workday, the pilot returns home to her family. But extracting herself from being “in the grey” — her long, tedious hours of murky surveillance, struggling to make out targets — leaves her tense and testy. She’s increasingly challenged to distinguish between the worlds she is straddling.

This woman is tough-minded and downright macho. She likes to mix it up with her flyboy compatriots; her language is often coarse, and she’s quite candid in her sexual relationship with her child’s father. She’s someone to admire, even if you don’t like her very much. From the outset, she’s proud to be who she is; her change in status is a blow to her self-confidence.

Wise has little to work with beyond her own strong presence onstage: Designer Brian Mehring has given her a nondescript chair, a lot of sand and a corrugated metal rear wall. His lighting, often snapping from subtle to harsh (the set has channels in the floor that the visual targeting mechanism for strikes), adds a surreal quality to the production, which unfolds in 80 relentless minutes without intermission.

Director Michael Evan Haney, former associate artistic director at the Cincinnati Playhouse, is particular adept staging one-actor shows. (He directed Bruce Cromer in ETC’s memorable staging of An Iliad last season.) Haney confidently steers Wise along the daunting path from cocky flyer to hallucination-racked ground personnel as her steely veneer cracks and crumbles.

Grounded is a powerful statement about the corrosive power of war, and how it can delude, twist and crush a human spirit. It’s not an easy story to watch, but it’s one we all need to see.

GROUNDED, presented by Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, continues through Feb. 14. NATIVE GARDENS at the Cincinnati Playhouse is onstage until Feb. 21 .