Story: Katha has a high-powered job in the city that keeps her in high-stress mode. Her husband Ryu is a plastic surgeon who seems always to be on the run. One day, when Katha by chance meets a dapper fellow named Dean on the street and inquires about his ‘retro’ look, he hands her a brochure about the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence.
Seems that Dean and his wife Ellen belong to a ‘re-enactment’ group that consciously lives in the 1950s in a ‘gated community.’ They dress, talk and think to the best of their ability like Americans who ‘like Ike,’ keep the women at home taking care of the house and send the men off with snappy fedoras and antiquated briefcases to office employment or in blue-collar uniforms to factories that fuel the economy.
When Katha, unhappy over a miscarriage, tells a reluctant Ryu that she wants them to give the SDO a shot, they assimilate into the culture of their new society, one that considers Asian-American Ryu a second-class citizen and Katha just another housewife. As Katha submerges deeper into the SDO, Ryu has unsettling observations about his co-worker Roger and life in general in the “good old days.”
Highlights: Inspired originally by interviews for a theater collective known as The Civilians, Maple and Vine premiered at the 2011 Humana Festival in Louisville before moving to Off-Broadway later that year. It’s been produced all over the country ever since, and with good reason.
Maple and Vine not only harkens back to a bygone era in its plot but taps into a deep reservoir of art that has previously mined this field for a mother lode of gems. Director Doug Finlayson and his clever HotCity cast offer a smart and sobering assessment of Thomas Wolfe’s admonition that you can’t go home again, especially when you were never there to start.
Other Info: Jordan Harrison’s incisive two-act drama provides plenty of thought-provoking situations, even if we’ve been down this road many times before. We see snippets of recognition in films such as Westworld, The Village, The Stepford Wives and Far From Heaven. Of course, we’re reminded constantly of Mad Men, the landmark TV series that began its journey set in 1959 and presently has taken its viewers into the turbulent spring of 1968.
Maple and Vine doesn’t have the gravitas of Mad Men, but it is surprisingly effective in weaving an interesting tale on its own even if it does touch often upon themes relevant to the aforementioned flicks. It also alludes, as artistic director Marty Stanberry states in a news release, to America’s modern political landscape, where folks used to being the ‘haves’ are belligerently reluctant to share with the long-time ‘have-nots.’
At the core of Maple and Vine, though, is the unhappiness of its central character Katha, and the ends to which she is willing to journey to find that elusive feeling, one that Carlyle’s Teufesldrockh never could achieve. There’s a lot happening in these two hours, thanks to Harrison’s intriguing plot and shrewd characterizations.
The latter are richly realized under Finlayson’s careful, shrewdly measured guidance by a top-notch cast. Shanara Gabrielle convinces us why an intelligent, modern career woman such as Katha would be willing to subjugate herself in pursuit of the happiness alluded to by Thomas Jefferson three centuries ago. Gabrielle is eerily polished in her unsettling performance, helping a viewer understand why she makes her decisions.
Michelle Hand turns in a remarkably nuanced character portrayal of Ellen, the dimple-cheeked, happy homemaker to Dean who reveals as much about the history of this complex woman in her expressions as she does in her dialogue. The undercurrents of torment are gripping in her presentation.
Chad Morris is the measure of ‘50s success as the genial, upbeat Dean, who most definitely is too good to be true. Morris shows us how hard Dean tries to convey an attitude and demeanor that ring a little too hollow even to him.
Alan David satisfactorily conveys Ryu as a man who defers to his wife in modern times as well as in their not-so-brave new world. Robby Suozzi smartly offers two finely etched characterizations, as an ambitious colleague of Katha’s in her contemporary career and as a mysterious co-worker of Ryu’s at their factory, a man who can toss off thinly veiled racist remarks while simultaneously walking on the wild side.
Their work is faithfully conveyed on Sean Savoie’s facile set that moves from sleek urbanity to the retro world so diligently pursued by the SDO. He’s aided immeasurably by Meg Brinkley’s props, which include a stereo that offers pop tunes of the ’50s in Rusty Wandall’s sound design. JC Krajicek provides attire that matches both modern and retro eras, and Michael Sullivan lights everything like a science project under a microscope.
You’ve been to Maple and Vine before, but some of the motives that guide its inhabitants may surprise you in this ‘re-enactment.’
Play: Maple and Vine
Group: HotCity Theatre
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters, 501 North Grand
Dates: May 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18
Tickets: $15-$25; contact 289-4063 or hotcitytheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Todd Studios