Who hasn’t, at one time or another, imagined what it might be like to travel back to at least visit another period in time? Now, Anaheim California’s award-winning “Chance Theater” explores that very premise in the fourth and perhaps most intriguing offering of their 16th Anniversary Season with the regional premiere of Jordan Harrison’s clever and sharply drawn fantasy, “Maple And Vine”. Directed by Mark Ramont, the show introduces audiences to “Katha” and “Ryu”, a modern interracial couple (He’s of Japanese descent; she’s Caucasian) living a fast-paced, upper-middle class life in New York City. Both have very successful careers—he a plastic surgeon and she’s got a high-powered publishing job at “Random House”; yet, despite feeling the loss of a recent miscarriage, life (overall) should be a dream for the two. Even so, despite all the technological benefits to living ‘the good life” here in the year 2014, they feel mostly drained, depressed and disconnected, desperately longing for a simpler life.
One day, just such an opportunity presents itself when Katha has a fortuitous meeting with “Dean”—a man who looks like he just stepped out of an old episode of “Ozzie And Harriet”. Dean explains that he’s part of “The Society Of Dynamic Obsolescence” (or “S.D.O.” for short,) which is a small, closed community somewhere in the mid-west dedicated to recreating life as it was in 1955. This means, forsaking all technological accoutrements (and even the daily news) to actively recreate life as it was in what they consider to be that particularly ‘charmed’ year. Intrigued (–or maybe, relieved) Katha and Ryu decide to leave everything modern behind and join the community; however, each soon realizes that even the simplest things are seldom what they seem. “People kept things to themselves” Dean’s wife Ellen explains of 1950’s society; “People held their heads up high!” At first, one might even be apt to notice a certain smugness or self-satisfaction to Dean and Ellen. Oh, they’re both likeable enough—in fact, they could be the perfect couple (–on the face of it.) But underneath their grinning jovial façade, we soon learn that they (like everybody) have their secrets too, and as today, things back then were not always what they seemed. Consider too, how Ryu steps down from working as a surgeon to working in a box factory where he faces subtle (and sometimes not so) racism from his supervisor Roger—a man who himself may be more than he appears, with the kind of connection to Dean that society in the 1950’s seldom—if ever–dared to discuss. “I’m not like you!” Dean snaps at Roger, regarding their clandestine encounters; “I don’t NEED this!” “You could’ve fooled me” comes his wounded reply.
Ramont’s direction tackles the nuts and bolts of his narrative with a steady, but tender touch—favoring neither the absurdly comic nor the surprisingly poignant, but providing all of these elements their due at their proper times in the story. Moreover, Scenic Designer, Joe Holbrook’s set is amazing in and of itself! Throughout most of the First Act, it consists of series of black and white flats painted in a rather mundane cubist design. Initially, one is likely to think that this is possibly a nod back to the days (which numerous individuals nowadays are inclined to perceive) when the world was seen (quite literally) in black and white. But wait! By the time the end of the act rolls around–when the couple finally enter their new community, it then dramatically ‘opens up’ into a vibrantly colored “doll house” example of a 50’s era domicile (complete with all the latest gadgets and conveniences of the day.) Bradley Lock’s costumes are also right on the money–whether it’s the drab ‘office casual” of 2014, or the perky, colorful (and decidedly more formal)”around the house” attire of six decades ago.
Indeed, these are auspicious times for Playwright Jordan Harrison. A rapidly rising talent on the contemporary theater-scene, he’s getting twice the attention from Southern California theater-goers these days, because even while “The Chance” is presenting “Maple And Vine”, Los Angeles’s celebrated “Mark Taper Forum” will themselves be unveiling his “Marjorie Prime” simultaneously. Among the most praise-worthy aspects of his script for “Maple And Vine” is the way he refuses to settle for easy answers—what’s more he actually dares to be politically incorrect in a number of his assertions, particularly in regards to the standard feminist thought so readily accepted today. (“It’s different for girls” Ellen tells Katha at one point regarding their decisions to accept a more traditional viewpoint apropos to the roles wives and husbands play in their community; “It’s a different kind of power.”) Save for several “dream sequences” given to Katha’s character that seem like a slightly incongruous form of exposition, the plot is solid and the characters sharply drawn and portrayed. As a matter of fact, “Maple And Vine” features some of the strongest female characters in recent stage memory. Best yet, Harrison shrewdly allows individual viewers to decide for themselves when it comes to many of the issues his play lays forth–all of which adds up to some pretty compelling theater!
The cast of five (with two playing dual roles) serve the material particularly well. Jennifer Ruckman delivers a pleasingly empathetic performance as “Katha”, (later called “Kathy” once settled into her more domestic routine,) and hers is arguably the most complex character through whose eyes all the action unfolds. Likewise, Robert M. Lee as her ever patient and loving husband, “Ryu”, does an equally laudable job—frequently underplaying his reactions to the absurdity that surrounds him. This plausibly makes the laughs that much bigger and more effective. As the charismatic, if anachronistic, “Dean”–the “S.D.O’s” gate-keeper to ‘the outside world’ (–and whose name in that ‘real-time’ world, we eventually discover, is in reality “Jason”,) Daniel Fagan also does a genuinely impressive job. Faced with what could too easily be played off as a simple caricature from a vintage TV re-run, he instead conveys a three-dimensional and believable portrayal of a man who, it is ultimately found out, is so deeply and so startlingly conflicted. Kelly Ehlert too, does a primo job pulling double-duty, taking on both Dean’s wife “Ellen”, as well as “Jenna”—a co-worker at Katha’s publishing house. As “Ellen” she similarly renders a woman of quiet strength and charisma who appears to have everything—a terrific husband, a wonderful house, and leading role in the community, but who in the end, finds her inner-strength severely tested (–her Second Act monologue is exceptionally potent!) Then, in a delightfully intriguing contrast, Ehlert’s “Jenna” is also a woman who should be enjoying the benefits of ‘having it all”, but instead just seems to be straining to keep one-step ahead of our current rat-race. Rounding out the company is James McHale who also provides rich, multi-layered support as both “Roger” and “Omar”—Katha’s gay secretary at “Random House”. Interestingly enough, it’s especially fitting that these latter two actors perform these additional parts, as each is merely an alternative ‘take’ on their primary character (with the chief variation being just that they exist in—and represent–two separate ‘eras’.)
At turns humorous, light-hearted, thought-provoking and even a little bit ‘creepy’ (–the ending is worthy of the best “Twilight Zone-esque” examples of dramatic irony–) “Maple And Vine” is, nonetheless, always enthralling to watch! Having begun previews on Friday, September 19th through Thursday September 25th, regular performances began Friday September 26th and will continue through Sunday, October 19th, 2014. Performance times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm with a special performance scheduled on Tuesday, September 30th, at 8pm (No performance will be held on Saturday, October 11th.) Tickets may be obtained either by phone by calling (714) 777-3033, or via the web by logging onto: www.ChanceTheater.com ; “The Chance Theater” is located in their new home at “The Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center”, 5522 E. La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, California.
Production Stills By Doug Cattiler At “True Image Studio” (www.trueimagestudio.com) Courtesy Of Casey Long At “The Chance Theater” in Anaheim, CA (www.ChanceTheater.com) Special Thanks To Casey Long, Associate Producers Scott And Sandra Graham And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chance Theater’s” “Maple And Vine” For Making This Story Possible.