BWW Reviews: A Very Different Kind of Nostalgia Lives at MAPLE AND VINE at CoHo Productions
Time travel is one of the most dependable genres in the arts. Novels like Replay and Time and Again, movies from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (which started out as a novel) to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and even television shows like the current Sleepy Hollow send people from the present into the past or future - or sometimes propel people from those eras into ours - and we all laugh at the anachronisms and wonder how they'll manage to avoid changing history. Most of these are lighthearted - though Replay is one of the most effective thrillers I've ever read - and in most of them the protagonists end up safely back in the era they started out in.
But what if a group of modern-day folks, annoyed by modern technology and the fast pace of life in the 21st century, decided to create a place where it would always be 1955? The men would work, the women would be homemakers, and everyone would strive to conform to the proper behavior of the time. Not as a theme park to visit - but to live there 24/7. That's the premise of Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine. Katha and Ryu are busy New Yorkers, rushing to their jobs, texting and e-mailing constantly, and unable to breathe long enough to deal with their grief after a miscarriage. Katha can't sleep, and Ryu doesn't know how to help her.
We're introduced to Dean, the leading proponent of the 1955 lifestyle. He talks to us as if we're a new class of recruits, just moved to the Midwestern town where they operate, and he hilariously lays out the rules. He meets Katha, who's so burnt out on her job and her noisy neighbors that she's susceptible to the sales pitch, and eventually she and Ryu are packing up their lives - what few things they're allowed to take with them - and moving backwards in time.
The play is very funny, and the time-travel humor is bountiful. (Katha and Ryu use "Hillary Rodham Clinton" as a safe word.) The costumes by Judith Kempe are absolutely perfect, with the men decked out in natty suits and sweaters while the women are in period dresses that look just right. But there is a darker undercurrent, and a more serious subject hiding underneath the jokes. Katha, the picture of a modern businesswoman, actually feels more empowered as a housewife, and finds herself on the "Authenticity Committee," dictating to others how best to live the 1955 lifestyle. Ryu, an American of Japanese descent, is transformed into an immigrant, dealing with discrimination from those who "remember" Pearl Harbor, but having to "wear the pants" in his marriage makes him stronger..
Megan Kate Ward's direction is just about perfect. She keeps the cast of five wandering all over the house, using every inch of Sarah Lydecker's set to fine effect; we smoothly jump from a living room to a box factory to a park with little effort. Projections designed by Noah Wesley Phillips and sound designed by Cecil Averett help not only to set the scene but the time, and often bring more humor to the play.
The performers are just about perfect. Melissa Schenter has a tough job as Katha, who has to be a tough modern woman and then gradually transform herself into a meek '50s housewife, and then transition again into a more powerful version of that same housewife, and she handles the assignment beautifully. Heath Hyun Houghton as Ryu seems off-kilter at first, but gradually becomes more in control of his character and more powerful on stage as well. Jill Westerby, as Dean's wife, is the perfect caricature of a '50s den mother, until the facade cracks and we see what it's cost her to play the role so effectively. Likewise, Spencer Conway carries himself like the macho cartoon we'd expect, until he reveals another side to the character. Westerby and Conway also double as goofy coworkers in the 2014 scenes, who keep turning up in Katha's scrambled dreams, and they add more humor and texture to the play. The standout in the cast is veteran Portland comic actor Sean McGrath, who comes across as a laughable figure right out of a Geritol commercial, with the ringing voice of a '50s TV announcer and the corny attitudes you can almost see coming. But he too has another side, and as we get to know the character more intimately, McGrath keeps finding new angles to play; he still gets his laughs, but they're more painful as the play goes along.
Maple and Vine is very much a comedy, but it's the kind of comedy where you laugh your head off for two hours and then go home and can't stop thinking about the issues it raises. I'm not sure I'd want to live in 1955 for the rest of my life, but I'm going to make a point of turning off my phone now and then - and not just at the theater.