What drives some people to turn their backs on the techno-blessings of the modern world and opt for alternatives like “voluntary simplicity” or living “off the grid”? And what do they gain — and lose — in the bargain? The exploration of these questions is at the heart of Jordan Harrison’s thought-provoking and at times a bit messy new play Maple and Vine (currently running at City Theatre).
The play centers on Katha and Ryu, an inter-racial married couple (Katha is white; Ryu is Japanese-American). She’s a mid-level manager/editor at a publishing house; he’s a successful plastic surgeon. Katha has recently had a miscarriage, is (understandably) suffering a crisis of meaning in her life and feeling acutely disconnected and at sea. She meets Dean, the leader of an alternative community where both the material conditions and social arrangements of 1955 are meticulously recreated, and she convinces Ryu to move there, experimentally, to test whether the more restrictive clarity of life in 1955 might cure what she perceives as their mutual malaise of existential emptiness.
It’s an intriguing setup, pregnant with possibilities for both comedy and reflection, and Harrison’s script mines that potential well, particularly in those places where he uses the mirror of 1955 to help us see how busily (and fruitlessly) distracted we manage to keep ourselves in 2012, and how much the technology that connects us to the world also fundamentally isolates us from each other. These are things we know, of course, but Harrison’s writing brings them into sharp clarity, and many audience members will readily sympathize with the characters’ yearning to have less choice, less information and less freedom — with less to decide, know, and do in return.
But while we might nod our heads in recognition of the problem, the play is not quite sure what attitude to take towards its own solution, and as a result much of the play’s action doesn’t quite add up. In “1955” Ryu – who has agreed to the venture with skepticism and reluctance – gets a manual labor job building cardboard boxes in a factory where he is the object of thinly veiled racism. Dean, we later learn, has sought refuge in the 50s as a way of escaping homosexuality (or is it a means of enhancing the frisson of his continued amorous encounters with Roger?). In both cases, we’re meant to see the dark poisonous currents of conformist pressure flowing beneath the bright blue nostalgic-utopian sea, but I couldn’t help thinking at such moments that the play’s real interest lies in exploring a strange variation of Stockholm Syndrome, in which these time hostages grow enamored of their oppressive circumstances. What else explains why Ryu – born in Long Beach – would be willing to accept such a radical downgrading?
Tonally, too, the play seems to be confused about where it lives. To play 1955 “authentically” the 2012 characters must adopt an era-appropriate sincerity, but the production itself isn’t quite sure whether to present that sincerity at face value, or ironically, and I found myself puzzling over how we are meant to take, for example, Katha’s embrace of traditional gender roles and her enthusiastic preference for raising a bi-racial daughter in the misogynist, racist, stiflingly homophobic world of 1955. Are we to be sympathetic, seeing her as a psychological victim of postmodernity? Critical, recognizing the power of communities to coerce ideological conformity? Katha and Ryu have drunk the koolaid, but it’s not clear whether we’re meant to see that as a good thing or a bad thing.
The tonal inconsistency is a problem because the play trips on questions of plausibility — if it signalled its status more consistently and clearly as metaphor we would more readily lay that yardstick of realism aside. City Theatre’s production certainly wants to nudge the play more firmly in the direction of metaphor: Narelle Sissons’ set, in which both 2012 and 1955 float on an architectural blueprint of a street, encourages us to read the play the way we read such plans, as a two-dimensional rendering that purposefully abstracts features in order to communicate key pieces of information. We may be meant to understand that we’re not to fret to much about how “real” the character motivations and reactions are, because, like the tiny figures architects put on elevations for scale, their purpose is to put the structure in perspective and relief. It’s a smart design, but for better or worse, the play’s characters are just too three-dimensional to reside comfortably within such a schema, and the play pushes back against the design’s insights.
Despite these reservations, Maple and Vine has given me a great deal to think about and chew on, which is always a good thing. If you can suspend your disbelief on the plausibility front and keep yourself from puzzling over the play’s political stance there is a great deal to enjoy in, and take from, this production. Harrison writes sharp, witty dialogue; Robin Abramson, Nelson Lee, Greg McFadden, Caralyn Kozlowski, and Ross Beschler all give excellent performances, and the overall look & sound of the production is terrific — in addition to Sissons, the design team includes the talented Robert C.T. Steele (costume), Matthew Richards (light), and Eric Shimelonis (sound).