American Conservatory Theatre presents…..
MAPLE AND VINE
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Mark Rucker
The fifties – they seem to have taken place on a sunny afternoon that asked nothing of you except a drifting belief in the moment and its power to satisfy.
This beautifully crafted production takes a new twist on bringing the past to life. Jordan Harrison’s MAPLE AND VINE does a thoughtful and provocative job of juxtaposing 1955 with the present. This reviewer remembers the pointy bras, the killer waist cinchers, and the bouffant crinolines. In those days, men endured reddened chafed necks created by starched white shirt collars with a formal four-in-hand tie. Alex Jaeger’s costumes contrast the mood of both eras and Ralph Funicello recreates the décor from a present–day breakfast table with each person absorbed in his laptop to the tacky pictures on the fifties’ living room wall. Funicello can remember the fifties and he does not see it as the idyllic existence Dean (Jamieson Jones) paints in the first act of this play. “I remember that it was a time of incredible segregation, sexism and anti-Semitism,” he says. “. …..even though the sense was that everything was fine, certainly for white America.”
“(In MAPLE AND VINE) Jordan Harrison asks us to look at our contemporary lives, filled with an infinite variety of choices and ask why the plethora of options we find before us often makes us feel paralyzed rather than pleased,” says ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff. “And if we are unhappy with our lives today, are we willing to sacrifice some of our hard-won freedom to regain that elusive feeling of happiness? As a die-hard feminist, I was mystified at the thought that a woman like Katha (superbly realized by Emily Donahoe) the professional editor in MAPLE AND VINE, would choose to give it all up to become a 1950’s-style homemaker or that her husband Ryu (Nelson Lee who gives his role a sensitive and authentic portrayal) an Asian American man used to living in a progressive society, would even consider returning to a moment in American history just after we had interned hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans.”
The 21st century is not a happy one for so many of us. “We are paying for increased affluence and increased freedom with a substantial decrease in the quality and quantity of social relations,” says sociologist Barry Schwartz. “We earn more and spend more but we spend less time with others.”
Indeed, we have lost a sense of community and the feeling of belonging that once was the hallmark of every neighborhood. We all feel like Alice running as fast as we can toward a nirvana we can’t really define, never getting anywhere. Families are fragmented; religion is fighting for validity; we live with our eyes glued to a computer screen. What happened to face to face conversation?
This is the dilemma all too prevalent in a society where we all are under unbelievable pressure to live the expectations we have been told we have a right to expect. We see the “good life” on our television screens…we dip into the conflicts, the mishaps and the frustrations of people in so-called reality shows and documentaries, but we are no closer to each other.
MAPLE AND VINE opens with Katha and Ryu in bed trying to figure out what is missing in their lives. Katha says “Happiness is not having enough time to wonder if you’re happy.” Her editorial job eats up her day, her recent miscarriage adds to her sense that she has lost control of her life and even her love for her husband feels rushed and superficial. She is overwhelmed with depression, cannot face what has become of her life and quits her job. She is sitting on a park bench trying to come to terms with who she really is when Dean, a man in a fifties suit and hat stops to talk to her. He is the ambassador for the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (SDO). He and his wife Ellen (Julia Coffey) are living in a gated community that has recreated life in 1955 and they are happy there. Modern-day conveniences were ruining their lives, he tells Katha. “In the twenty first century, you hardly have to interact with anyone,” he says. “Today, people are not quiet in their minds.”
And Ellen explains, “There was no one watching over you in the fifties and telling you how to live.“ Katha thinks this sounds like a perfect world. She determines to give the 1950’s life style a trial run but Ryu is reluctant to leave the 21st century. He is a plastic surgeon now, but in the fifties his Japanese American heritage would prevent him from becoming a professional. He is swayed however because Dean says that the SDO is a great place to raise kids and Ryu believes that a baby would heal the rift that seems to be splitting his marriage apart despite the efforts of both he and his wife to continue their relationship with the satisfactions it should be bringing (but isn’t.)
The second act of this play peels away the artificial veneer of the era and we see its downside. Katha becomes the “little woman,” cooking, cleaning and caring for her man. When she recalls her life in the second millennium she says “It was so easy to get what they wanted that no one wanted anything. In the 1950’s you had to keep it together.” And the audience knows that she means, “You have to put up a proper front.“ In those days, you never discussed unwanted pregnancies, the coat hanger abortions, the job opportunities that did not exist for anyone of any color but white. You dressed the right way with a smile on your face and brought casseroles to the neighbors. If you were gay, you were illegal.
As the plot develops, Harrison digs into at the superficial neighborliness tainted with prejudice and cruel stereotyping that was so much a part of that era. Katha (now Kathy) speaks to the SDO Authenticity Committee and complains that she and her “Oriental” husband are not really experiencing the reception they would have received in a 1955 community. They were neither harassed nor discriminated against enough: no vandalism, no attempts to make them move from the neighborhood. The resolution is unbelievably sad to this reviewer because it rings so true. Kathy and Ryu buy into the fifties and believe that they have found happiness at last despite the narrow limitations of acceptability and the undercover prejudices that are acted upon but never spoken.
I graduated from college in 1955. At that time, in the Midwest, women went to college to get married. The only professions open to them were the helping professions: a teacher, a librarian, secretary, nurse, home maker or prostitute and they all involved pretty much the same tasks and responsibilities. I believed then that men were supposed to be breadwinners and their women shut up and took it. The idea that any rational human being would accept the lifestyle that I believe mutilated the psyches of us all is inconceivable. And that is the real point of this wonderfully paced and beautifully directed play. Harrison shows us the cracks in the fifties life style by dramatizing the need to be something you were not to survive. The characters in the play may say they found heaven in the fifties, but the audience knows better.
There is no doubt that so much of what we do, say and expect of ourselves is wrong these days, but it is a lot more right than the limitations, the prejudices and the rigidity of the fifties. The idea that men are men and women are their toys or servants doesn’t work in today’s world. In the fifties, your life was mapped out according to iron-clad but unspoken rules; today we have choice. In today’s world, we can always stop where we are and try something new. Life can be what you make it and the good thing is you have the power to make it just what you like.
Would YOU like to return to the past? Do you really understand what you would lose? See MAPLE AND VINE and decide for yourself.
I felt trapped and fabricated in the fifties
Living up to other people’s expectations.
MAPLE AND VINE continues through April 22, 2012
415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
Tickets begin at $10.00