Somehow the notion that the 1950’s were an idyllic time in America continues to exist and people continue to idealize that decade in terms of gender confidence, family values and strong American ethics. No one remembers that 37% of (mostly poor) women worked outside the home, 11% of the population was gay and racism was rampant. Welcome to Maple and Vine , HotCity Theatre’s second production of their 2013 season. Directed by Doug Finlayson, Maple and Vine harkens back to the beginnings of HotHouse Theatre, when the scripts were provocative and surprising. You want answers whether 1955 or 2013 is the better time to live? You won’t find them here. What you will find is plenty of discussion fodder for the ride home, and that’s my favorite night at the theater.
Sean Savoie’s set does a great job in both time periods, the stark mid-century modern pieces in 1955 looking fresh and straight from Ikea in 2013. The change between the time periods is simple but startling and effective. Michael Sullivan’s lights and JC Krajicek’s costumes work beautifully to define the spaces and the times (and Katha’s second act shoes are darling.) Director Finlayson elicits some wonderful performances from most of his cast.
Katha and Ryu (Shanara Gabrielle and Alan C David) are the main characters in the play – looking to change their modern, shallow, ridiculously busy lives for something…well…”else.” So they join a group of re-enactors who live in a gated community where everything is set to 1955, the clothes, the jobs, the food, the cocktails, the attitudes. Gabrielle and David’s posture is slouchy, their diction unclear and their lines need more rehearsal. (I saw the show the evening after opening and lines should have been solid by then.) In sharp contrast, community leaders, Dean and Ellen (Chad Morris and Michelle Hand) were sharply dressed, letter and posture perfect, charming and heartbreakingly repressed. The final member of this ensemble is Robby Suozzi who plays a variety of roles quite well.
The second act is much more of an ensemble and Gabrielle and David’s acting benefit from scenes with Morris and Hand. Also, we delve deeper into the not-so lovely side of the 50’s, racism, repression and oppression. Now the questions fly. Most importantly, why do Katha and Ryu move to the community? Playwright Jordan Harrison could help us out with a bit more motivation for Katha’s disquiet, or maybe Gabrielle needs to make the miscarriage and her general unease more rooted and moving, it’s hard to say. It seems that people choose the community in hopes they can “hide.” Dean and Ellen have their own secrets and Morris and Hand are heartrending in the climactic scene. Personally, my attitude is “evolve or die.” While I have nostalgia for certain time periods, Elizabethan London and 1920’s New York, I wouldn’t really want to move there. If you enjoyed the movie Pleasantville, you will find similarities of theme in Maple and Vine. Also, playwright Harrison doesn’t tell you which era is better, you get to decide for yourself and you get to see some great work from Chad Morris and Michelle Hand. You will leave talking about the play and discussing your own attitudes, which is the mark of good theater. Entertaining and thought – provoking, it’s a win-win night at the theater.Maple and Vine continues at the Kranzberg art Center through May 18th. Go see it.