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“Maple and Vine”: A trip back in time where things were authentic?

Greg Watanabe, Jo Anne Glover, Mike Nardelli, Amanda Sitton and Jordan Miller in "Maple and Vine at Cygnet Theatre through Feb. 16th
Greg Watanabe, Jo Anne Glover, Mike Nardelli, Amanda Sitton and Jordan Miller in "Maple and Vine at Cygnet Theatre through Feb. 16th
Daren Scott

"Maple and Vine"

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San Diego, CA---Predicting the future is somewhat of a ‘science’, if you will. Based on past experiences, information and trends for those in the know, some pretty accurate forecasts have emerged. In 1949 George Orwell predicted that by 1984 ‘Big Brother’ would be watching us. In 2014 …well, some do have their concerns.

Back in the 50’s, carefree in the moment living for a teenager wasn’t an issue for my friends or me. Who would be going with whom to the next fraternity dance, was. Worrying about tomorrow let alone thirty years into the future was not on our radar.

We just plowed along through the 60’s, 70’s, to the present thankful that so many new and innovative happenings on our watch were brought to the fore and thrilled to be alive to have experienced them. Looking back and sharing experiences with children and grandchildren makes us almost fossilized, but ‘going back to those days’ would be doomsday.

In Jordan Harrison’s new play, “Maple and Vine” now in its Southern California premiere at Cygnet Theatre through Feb. 16th the shoe is on the other foot. Harrison wants to take us back to a time in 1955, to an ‘authentic’ community where everything was simpler, more neighborly, easier and less intense. This is a play about myth and fantasy, not about reality. Bridging that gap and making it believable is just one thing not very authentic in “Maple and Vine”.

The playwright’s contention is that if you are not happy with the way things are going in your fast paced life now, consider a time when things were simpler; no texting, twitter, IPhones/pads, no 7/24 TV or babble. If you are living in a time capsule where nothing changes, he may be on to something, but can you imagine living in 1955 forever?

“Maple and Vine” premiered at the Humana Festival in 2011 and had its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons about six months later. It is definitely an odd duck of a play. He disses our now disconnectedness with each other and suggests to us if we follow a different path we will be more content and ‘happier’ just as they were back in the ‘good old days’ of the fifties.

Through his characters, Katha (Jo Anne Glover), her husband Ryu (Greg Watanabe), Dean (Jordan Miller and his wife Ellen/Jenna (Amanda Sitton) he takes us back to a time when, yes, things were simpler, easier. Neighbors looked in on each other, frozen dinners were the exception, carhops, Foster Freeze (there is still one in my neighborhood) instead of frozen yogurt reigned, Sushi was yet to become a national pastime and women were subservient to men, “I Love Lucy”, Disneyland, and Barbies came on the scene. I could go on, but why bother?

Harrison also explores the isolation and pretense of ‘the other’ back then and tries to convince us that those were ‘happy times’. (Remember Happy Days?) As long as folks expressed their prejudice, homophobia, nosey interference and just plain nastiness behind closed doors, it was fine. What he fails to say is that the caring neighbors were the ones in our business rather than today’s surveillance. What he fails to mention are the McCarthy Hearings, segregation, Gentleman’s Agreement and Japanese Internment camps of the 40’s just to name a few of those ‘good old days’ happenings. Chose your poison.

“Don’t be square. “Back seat Bingo”. “Cool it”. “Have a blast”. Word from the bird”. Really? How about this one, “Sometimes you razz my berries”. It’s not too convincing a reason to settle into a community specifically engineered to house the 50’s ideas where the folks who buy into the idea of looking for a simpler life will naturally find one. Simple is as simple does. But as W.C. Fields said, “There is a sucker born every minute” and Dean found one in Katha.

Dean is somewhat of a traveling salesman. He century travels from the then to the now preaching to unsuspecting fed up with their daily grind, about a place called SDO (Society of Dynamic Obsolescence). He tells them of a utopia, where things are simple. “If you are a gardener, you garden”. “You won’t get invited to the home of the man you’re working for”. “If you are a homemaker, you make a home”. “Your husband and kids are going to be home soon and dinner has to be on the table. You are not free. But in another way you are more free”. (HUH?)

When we first meet Katha (she later changes her name to Kathy) and Ryu in their Manhattan apartment. Katha is having a hard time sleeping and Ryu is overly concerned. The couple recently suffered a miscarriage and Katha is definitely depressed and can’t seem to get her act together.

She’s fed up with the street noises, the shouting and hubbub outside their apartment and would be willing to leave her job as a publishing executive in a heartbeat. Ryu is a plastic surgeon. For the most part their lives are on hold. Sex is a thing of the past and discussions of a future family are met with resistance.

After a chance meeting between Katha and Dean, and she listens to his spiel she is convinced that the SDO is exactly what she and Ryu need in their lives. He’s not as convinced, calling it cult where members devote themselves to recreating a ‘rigorously 1950’s America’, where it’s always 1955.

In an effort to please her, he finally gives in to her whim. This is where we have to suspend belief take a leap of faith and accept the fact that Ryu is willing to go along with his wife, become a second-class citizen (a mixed race couple) and work in a factory for a bully boss. He plays along and goes along.

The second chapter of their lives begins in Act II when Katha and Ryu are settled in their little bungalow on Maple and Vine. She’s busy cooking up a storm something she rarely did in Manhattan and he is putting boxes together in a factory for less money than my five year old grandson gets for an allowance. They become sometimes friends with Dean and his wife Ellen. Amanda Sitton is spot on as Little Mary sunshine and that’s scary. Lurking in the shadows, Ryu’s boss Roger (Mike Nardelli) has a secret as in “I’ve Got a Secret”.

Dressed to the ‘nines’ in Jeanne Reith’s period authentic clothes gloves, hat, nipped at the waist dress and particularly fine makeup and wigs (Peter Herman), Amanda Sitton exemplifies her character, Ellen. She simply exudes enthusiasm whenever she is on stage bringing home the goods in what I would call, authentically phony.

She is vice president of the Authenticity Committee where she will soon introduce Katha as the new gal in town. Always smiling and looking pleased with her self, she reminds me of someone I could never feel comfortable with. As the play progresses, the now Kathy becomes known in the community and makes some pretty outlandish suggestions about her husbands ethnicity to the group of dedicated listeners; comments that defy logic.

Dean also has the 50’s look dressed in his tan suit, thin tie and Stetson. (He also has the exact outfit in navy and dark brown) and he is on equally deceptive footing big time but you can find that one out for yourselves. He is the one that goes into the modern world, finds out what is happening and then reports back to those in ‘the gated community. Miller is perfect as Dean, always in control and overly pleased with himself.

As Katha Jo Anne Glover has the unique task of doing a one hundred and eighty degree turnabout from a frustrated, depressed working woman to a happy homemaker, pleased as punch at her newly found cooking skills, new look (once again Reith has proven the master), new hair and new attitude. Stepford Wife? Almost. She does it to perfection.

Greg Watanabe, on the other hand, is taking it on the chin like an obedient child giving in to his wife’s whims at the cost of losing his own identity and facing harassment on his job every day. It makes me wonder. Yes, we see him disgusted, angry frustrated and loving all at the some time. Once again one has to wonder. The good news is that as unbelievable as it may sound, in the end he convinces. Stetson’s off to him!

Sean Fanning’s turntable set allows the different locations (and there are too many set changes) to come into view easily especially with three or four large draw panels that slide (noisily) along the backdrop somewhat lit by Michael Caron’s lighting design.

One thing one cannot deny and that’s that director Igor Goldin got the attitudes, clothes and pretense right. Now for the rest, it’s up to you.

Back to the Elizabethan Era anyone?

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 16th

Organization: Cygnet Theatre

Phone: 619-337-1525

Production Type: Comedy

Where: 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town

Ticket Prices:

Web: cygnettheatre.com

Venue: Old Town Theatre