Maple and Vine | HotCity Theatre

mapleandvine sqNo little piece of cloth has elicited so much emotion since Desdemona’s, but there’s no shouting here—just the profound silence of deeply felt pain.


mapleandvine 500

Peggy Sue Bodell did it by fainting at her 25th high school reunion. Marty McFly did it in a DeLorean to escape Libyan terrorists. A lot of Republicans want to do it now. HotCity Theatre brings us Ellen, Dean, Roger, Ryu, and Katha, who have chosen to pretend to time travel to 1955 (the same year as McFly, incidentally) to find a simpler life where people connect with each other, neighbors are friendly, and the world is slower and simpler. It’s a contrived plot certainly, but there really are people like the Amish who are in this world but not of it. This group calls itself the “SDO” (Society of Dynamic Obsolescence) and they have chosen to live a life immersed in pretense. Unlike Renaissance Faire or Civil War re-enactors who are hobbyists, the SDO expects complete immersion in the 1955 way of life.

This is certainly cultish behavior, but Dean (Chad Morris), his wife Ellen (Michelle Hand), and their society resent that implication. No one who tries to leave is stopped; in fact, newcomers are allowed a six-month trial period. Dean keeps in touch with the “other world” as a recruiter and administrator, and he has a cell phone for communication with the outside (though, like a gun, he keeps it in a locked drawer and it is to be used only for emergencies). One day when Dean is back at “headquarters,” he encounters an unhappy Katha (Shanara Gabrielle) whose demanding job and a recent personal tragedy have left her unusually sensitive to the hectic nature of 21st century life in New York City. Her husband, Ryu (Alan C. David), whom she almost never sees because of their long hours at work, is an in-demand plastic surgeon. They’re sick of their loud, inconsiderate neighbors, street noises, and the jangled nerves that have become a way of life. They are, especially Katha, “ripe for the pickin’,” as Dean might say.

Ryu has more reason to hesitate than his wife, not just about his career—which he’s pretty burned out on anyway—but because of his heritage. 1955 is only 10 years post–World War II. He is of Japanese descent, though American born, probably not incidentally, in the same area where Japanese were interned in California during the war. He’s concerned that Dean regards Katha and him as a “mixed race” couple, which Katha points out that they are, despite shared culture and experiences. But both are assured that they will be well-received because of a sort of collective guilt about the treatment of Japanese-Americans only a short time ago. But what Dean doesn’t mention is the kind of work Ryu will be expected to do.

Two other characters, Jenna (Hand) and Omar (Robby Suozzi), are Katha’s assistants at Random House where she has earned an Amanda Priestly reputation for toughness. Both want her job, and one of them will get it. But the disturbing thing about them is that they show up in Katha’s dreams after she and Ryu have moved back in time, and over the course of the 14 months that we follow them, her co-workers’ interactions with her subconscious mind gradually shift in a parallel arc to her own story.

Carefully mentored by Dean and Ellen, who is also the vice president of the community’s “authenticity committee,” she speaks on the necessity for strict observance to the tenets of the time. Being “authentic” is the gold standard of behavior here. You can’t just play at this life; you have to live it until you have, as nearly as possible, come to regard it as the real world and “outside” is just that: a place that has nothing to do with you. No one is going around handing out Soma or anything, so of course, people do remember their old lives, but that was their past, and this past is their now. Katha (now “Kathy”) seems to take to the life comfortably enough, but Ryu has it tougher. He is assigned to an assembly line constructing boxes, not a skill much prized in medical school. But he does acknowledge that it feels good to work with is hands, and he gets along fairly well with his supervisor, Roger (Suozzi). Maple and Vine has a necessarily long setup, but the store actually begins at this point, and much will be revealed as the layers of this lifestyle and these characters are peeled away.

The set is tricky for a small, black box theater crew to pull off, but it’s handled well in Sean Savoie’s design decorated with Meg Brinkley’s props. The first act takes place partly in Katha and Ryu’s city loft with Rusty Wandall’s clever street noises building to a crescendo right before the opening scene and then we also spend some time in Katha’s office. The apartment has a bed and a desk, and anything else that’s needed is put together with open cubes. These will be used later to represent the factory floor where Ryu and Roger interact, while the house at “Maple and Vine” in Act II is furnished in mid-century modern detail. It’s, well, authentic, except for one aspect that niggled at me all evening: Please iron the tablecloth. My mother would have been appalled.

JC Krajicek’s costumes are fun when we get into the ’50s, except Dean’s suit may be questionable. The jacket was too fitted and I’m not sure 4-button suits were entirely correct, but there may be a plot reason for the way his tailoring has been executed. The women’s dresses and one blouse and skirt for Ellen (there is a costume-change reason for this) are fun and kind of campy. One thing I did notice is some of the actors look like they belong in these clothes (Hand and David) and others look like they’re playing dress-up (Morris and Gabrielle). Michael Sullivan’s lights make the 21st century look harsh and the 20th quite soft and pleasant. Wandall’s selection of period music is a clever touch, and most impressively, all of the songs he chose would have been on the radio in 1955.

Doug Finlayson has directed with care, and Jordan Harrison’s play is fun to watch, but it runs out of steam during Act II and begins to drag. I’m not sure anything could be done about it, though. I’ve seen everyone in the cast multiple times, except Suozzi, who is new to me. Gabrielle is, as always, very good, and her dimpled smile lights up the room when she’s “happy,” one of her goals for seeking a life in the past. David and Morris are fine, but both seemed a bit distracted in the performance I saw; however again, they may be indicating a certain level of discomfort with the artificiality of their lives in the past. Hand is just terrific as Ellen. Her face shows everything going on in her mind. There are several exemplary moments throughout the play, but the most indelible to me is some business she has with Dean’s handkerchief. No little piece of cloth has elicited so much emotion since Desdemona’s, but there’s no shouting here—just the profound silence of deeply felt pain.

I do recommend Maple and Vine. It has weaknesses, but it’s still good theater that makes a significant statement about living life versus playing house. You’ll come away with much to discuss. | Andrea Braun

Maple and Vine runs through May 18 at HotCity Theatre in the Kranzburg Arts Center at Grand Center.

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