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Theatre Reviews: "Grounded" at Ensemble, "Native Gardens" at Playhouse

An unfocused sitcom for a world premiere at a regional theatre? With a sigh, I acknowledge it is the way of this not-so-brave new world of the 21st century when probable box office success trumps art.

Sitcom? Here’s the set-up for Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias at Playhouse in the Park (which produced her sitcom-y The Book Club Play a few years back):

We’re in the backyards of two adjoining historic townhomes in a posh urban neighborhood. The Butleys (John Lescault and Karen Ziemba) are older, white, proper. He enters his garden in the annual horticultural society competition. The other house is dilapidated (and the backyard looks like a slum) but thank goodness there are new neighbors. Uh-oh, they look Mexican.

The Del Valles (Gabriel Ruiz and Sabina Zuniga Varela) are educated and up-and-coming. She is very pregnant. Hubby comes home to announce that he’s invited the boss and the entire law firm over for a barbecue at the end of the week. (Honey, you didn’t!) This is a sitcom episode all by itself.

But wait. Here comes social satire with a spin, as part of Butleys’ formal garden is discovered to be on the Del Valle property. The Del Valles have been planning to put up a fence on Friday – but the garden competition is on Saturday! Oh, no! What will they all do, besides exchange loud insults (none of which are up to Archie Bunker’s standards)?

They will veer into farce.

All this here, there, and everywhere is jammed into 80 minutes. With a few minutes for an ending that feels as if the playwright didn’t know how to end the play so she gave up and tacked something on.

We all like sitcoms. But if you’re going to charge folks up to $80, it should be a smart one. A riotously funny one. A memorable one. And it should be as sharply produced as a good sitcom.

Native Gardens is none of these things. And – the Butleys’ lawn is a mess, with lots of what appear to be discolored patches. The garden judges would not have been impressed.

Native Gardens, through Feb. 21. Playhouse in the Park, Thompson Shelterhouse, Eden Park. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $35-$86 and subject to change. 513-421-3888 and

Grounded, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati

Ensemble delivers an elegant production of regional premiere Grounded, a fantasia about a female fighter pilot (Kathleen Wise) who has unprotected sex and gets pregnant (talk about risk-taking), is pulled down from “the blue,” which she loves, and pushed into “the gray” of flying unmanned drones on a gray screen in a gray trailer somewhere in the desert beyond Las Vegas.

What Grounded isn’t is as gripping as it should be.

The story is told by Wise, dressed in a Top Gun-style jumpsuit and with a Top Gun swagger. She is the Alpha. She is spotlighted on a low platform, bare except for a straight-backed metal chair, centered exactly over a target. (Boom.) There is sand along the edges of the playing space and on the stage below.

With Michael Haney directing, the atmosphere is chilly, reflecting the emotionall distance of The Pilot from her targets (and probably all of us from the never-ending desert war.)

Of course the playwright wrote Grounded because he has things to say about drone warfare and the highly trained military who are no longer in danger but who are damaged nonetheless. As a society we do need to own exactly what we’re doing.  

Does he fly his script beyond the realm of logic to make his passionate point? Oh, yeah.

Wise does everything she should, showing us The Pilot’s disintegration by degree, but on opening night she wasn’t talking to us, she was talking at us. Grounded is missing a point of connection. The production also misses an opportunity to use scenic design to expand the understanding of the audience.

Once The Pilot joins the despised “chair force,” the narrative veers from drama to fantasy. Before long, her team is assigned to identify a ”Number 2” bad guy, who has to be identified before he can be eliminated.

His car is followed 24/7 for weeks by our “eyes in the sky,” but he never leaves it. (Where does it re-fuel? Doesn’t he need to drink and eat? Is he sleeping in the back seat? Even Osama bin Laden had a hide-out.) No, he and his driver just speed through the desert, a sandy Moby Dick.

It’s clear to the audience The Pilot is losing touch with reality; her husband suggests counseling. So how is it that her bosses don’t know? If they don’t care about her, they surely care about their very expensive drone?

What comes after is un-be-lieve-a-ble. Or maybe it’s all in her mind.

Grounded, Jan. 26-Feb. 14. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, 1028 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $28-$44 adults, $25 students. 513-421-3555 and

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo: "Native Gardens" at Playouse in the Park (provided)