If you could leave your cell phone and sushi and Facebook and lattes and 21st-Century stress behind for a trip back in time to the halcyon Leave It To Beaver mid-1950s, would you? Could you?
This is the question faced by a publishing executive and her plastic surgeon husband in Jordan Harrison’s provocative if somewhat problematic Maple And Vine, now getting a first-rate Greater Los Angeles Premiere at Orange County’s Chance Theater.
Petula Clark may have extolled “all the noise and the hurries” of living “Downtown” back in the ‘60s, but by 2014, urban hustle-and-bustle has gotten to be too much for Katha (Jennifer Ruckman), bored and frustrated at work not yet recovered from a miscarriage suffered six months prior.
No wonder, then, that when handsome business-suit-and-hat-sporting Dean (Daniel Fagan) offers Katha and hubby Ryu (Robert M. Lee) the opportunity to move from Manhattan to a Midwest community whose residents have chosen to turn back the clock to the year 1955, the harried-and-hassled Katha jumps at the chance, her husband somewhat reluctantly agreeing to a six-month trial stay in the Eisenhower ‘50s.
Katha (redubbed Kathy to suit the era) reacts more positively to the change than her Japanese-American husband from Long Beach. Not only does she get to trade in her cramped, dingy New York digs for a spacious, spic-and-span suburban home, she loves wearing her June Cleaver shirt-waists and stylish upsweep dos, seasoning home-cooked meals with paprika and salt, and serving Smirnoff-laced highballs (no Grey Goose if you please) to dinner guests Dean and his Stepford-Wifely spouse Ellen (Kelly Ehlert) as the two couples compete at charades.
Wanting to support a wife still grieving the loss of an unborn child, Ryu goes along for the ride, though not without reservations. 1955 is, after all, little more than a decade after American citizens of Japanese descent were herded off into internment camps, and the couple’s interracial marriage denies them a home in the nicer, all-white parts of town. Not only that but rules set up by the community’s “Authenticity Committee” require surgeon Ryu to settle for menial factory work.
Unconditional as a devoted spouse’s love ought to be, it’s still a good deal of a stretch to buy into Ryu’s willingness to accept a demotion to second-class citizenship, let alone that another couple would opt to live in a world in which their love dare not speak its name. Add to that questions such as how inquisitive children could possibly be raised as squeaky-clean 1950s kids with the real world only miles away and you’ve got a script with almost as many holes as gruyere (sorry, make that Swiss) cheese.
Still, playwright Harrison’s thought-provoking premise alone makes Maple And Vine worth seeing and likely to prompt considerable “What would you do?” conversations once the house lights have gone back up.
Not surprisingly, Chance Theater has mounted a topnotch production under Mark Ramont’s assured direction.
Chance newcomer Fagan is so appealing a Dean, it’s no wonder Katha falls for his seductive pitch, with fellow Chance newbie Lee giving him stiff competition as a decent man willing to sacrifice his 21st-century self for the woman he loves.
Chance Resident Artist James McHale once again does memorable work in multiple roles, this time as Katha’s sassy gay coworker circa 2014 and as Ryu’s blue-collar supervisor circa “1955.”
Best of all are the women, Chance Resident Artist Ruckman morphing to perfection from frazzled, stringy-haired big-city Katha to tranquil, perfectly-coiffed small-town Kathy, while A Noise Within’s Ehlert shines as both a modern-day New Yorker and a 1950s housewife whose life may not be nearly as perfect as it seems.
Maple And Vine looks sensational in its L.A./Orange County debut. Joe Holbrook’s abstract black-and-white set reveals pastel wonders upon Ryu and Katha’s move to the suburbs, with Jayne Dutra’s lighting matching it every step of the way. Bradley Lock’s costumes are stunners too, particularly when contemporary drab metamorphoses into Fifties Technicolor. Ryan Brodkin’s sound design gives us the all the noise and distractions of big city life before transporting us into 1955 Hit Parade heaven. Amy Ramirez’s props are period-perfect as well.
Travis Donnelly, Meghan McCarthy and Josh Cardenas are (respectively) assistant director, assistant scenic designer, and assistant sound designer.
Bebe Herrera is stage manager. Jocelyn L. Buckner is dramaturg. Scott & Sandra Graham are associate producers.
While not a perfect play, Maple And Vine’s “What if?” premise makes it easy to see why regional theaters have found it appealing. That much of conservative Orange County is reputed to retrain a 1950s mentality makes Harrison’s dramedy a particularly apt choice for the Chance.
Post-show talkbacks are likely to make for spirited discussion indeed.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
September 26, 2014
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio