“The 1950s weren’t in black and white,” we’re reminded early on in Jordan Harrison’s new play Maple and Vine. “The main thing to remember is that you can live in color. You don’t have to go around trying to act like someone in an old photo.”
These words are the advice of Dean (Trent Dawson, perfectly period), the leader of the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a gated American community where residents go to live as if they were in the 1950s. Every detail – from family back stories to the food and the lingo – is one hundred percent authentic, thanks to the Authenticity Committee, led by Dean’s wife Ellen (Jeannine Serralles).
Katha (Marin Ireland, always spectacular) and her husband Ryu (Peter Kim) are, when the play begins, struggling within their marriage. Katha, who’s had a miscarriage and works long hours in the book publishing business, longs to spend more time with her husband, who also works long hours. One day, while sitting on a park bench, Katha is approached by Dean in his brimmed hat and dapper coat. The rest is history once he convinces her that a simpler life is desirable.
Ryu takes some convincing. His first reaction is to assume the Society – it’s called the SDO for short – is a cult. “It’s not a cult,” Katha retorts, “they have non-profit status.” After minimal nagging he goes along in the hopes that a return to simpler times will make it easier to start a family. They set a safe word for themselves (in case they ever need to discuss their old lives in modern-day society); theirs is “Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
As soon as Dean and Ellen have acquainted them with the rules, they’re off and running in the Society, quickly finding the adjustment more pleasant than had been feared. Ryu is set up with a job making boxes in a factory under the watchful eye of the foreman, Roger (Pedro Pascal), who, in keeping with period sentiment, is subtly racist. Ryu, initially skeptical, soon finds himself almost enjoying his subjugation. The low expectations of his job – and of his life in general – are soothing. When he returns home each day, he’s met by his wife, a drink, and a hot meal. What could go wrong?
Meanwhile Katha – renamed Kathy for ease of 50s pronunciation – is learning to cook and taking part in the Authenticity Committee, threatening soon enough to upstage Ellen’s perch as its leader. When Dean is revealed to be somewhat “different,” let’s say, than appearances have suggested, however, life in the Society is rocked and everyone is forced to reevaluate their retro-outfitted lives.
As Kathy posits, “when you try to forget something, it can get louder and louder until all you can do is say it out loud.” Such is the primary message of Harrison’s wholly original, captivating new play, which echoes the themes of the film Pleasantville but with a darker, more complex texture and sharper writing. Anne Kauffman’s direction allows the play to move between contemporary and retro modes with an admired sharpness, and her company of assembled actors couldn’t be finer.
As the lives of our protagonists, neatly dressed in period costumes by Ilona Somogyl, begin to unravel like the synthetic fabrics they’ve shed, they begin to discover that methods of escape can grow to be more real than the realities they’ve left behind.
“People will whisper,” Kathy tells Ellen as the play nears its conclusion and her life is turned upside down by her husband. “What could be more authentic than that?” In the hunt for something authentic, within the world of the SDO, there are emotional sacrifices that must be made. What’s authentic is not always easy. But if you try hard enough, everything else may just slip away like an unremembered dream.