Friends of Bill W. know it as “pulling a geographic”—picking up stakes and moving away from the people for the promise of a fresh start and a clean slate. The problem is that wherever you go, there you are. And the hardest monkey to shake off your back, at least for those of us who are interesting, is the one chattering in your head.
But that doesn’t deter the Manhattan power couple at the heart of Jordan Harrison’s 2011 dark comedy Maple & Vine from chucking the urban grind and unplugging from 24-7 digital convenience in order to slip into new skins. They are characters in 1955 Middle America, playing in real time in a Westworld-ish gated community somewhere in the Midwest, where cellphones are verboten, men work in offices and factories, women run the home, and words such as sushi and portobello might as well be ethnic slurs directed at whatever Japs or dagos are being whispered about.
It’s an intriguing premise: Would you sacrifice the instant gratification and digital ease of Wikipedia, Amazon and DoorDash for the public library, merchants who actually know your name, and spending seven hours making chicken stock from scratch? Hell no, you wouldn’t (and if you leaned yes, you’re full of shit—or blessed with either a savings account that allows you the indulgence of lots of free time or a lifestyle in which doing more with less isn’t as much a choice as it is a necessity).
But Katha and Ryu—burned out in the Big City, reeling from the profound disappointment of miscarriage, and unfulfilled by careers in publishing and plastic surgery—jump at, or at least tilt toward, the opportunity to trade the color pixels and 4G of modern life for the black-and-white world of Ozzie and Harriet. Sure, they have safe words (Hillary Rodham Clinton) in case either feels compelled to crack the manufactured nostalgia they’ve adopted, but they know what life in the now is like, or not like, so why not embrace the allure of a more authentic past when the present feels so immediate and always there that it seems completely fake?
Of course, back then isn’t quite what anyone thinks. Instead of a milieu in which no one is allowed to mind their goddamn business—or not post their private shit for a world of strangers to gawk at—they find themselves in one in which whispers reign, repression is noble, and no one is allowed to mind their own goddamn business because, really, there’s nothing to do except fixate on other people’s business.
Harrison’s story, and Katha and Ryu’s attempts at reinventing themselves, is ably told in director Sarah Ripper’s staging of the play. Neither Darri Kristin nor Lee Samuel Tanng telegraph Katha’s and Ryu’s journey, making this an ultimately satisfying ride for the audience. Equally dynamic are the characters of Dean (the smooth-talking ambassador for the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, the shadowy outfit that runs this Midwest internment camp for the modern disaffected, played in seamlessly unctuous and ambiguous fashion by Jason Cook) and Roger (a simmering, always-on-the-edge-of-boiling Cristian Rincon), who shares the secret even Dean can’t escape. Only Laura Lejuwaan’s Ellen (Dean’s long-suffering wife—and the most thinly written character) feels less than resonant, as if mother’s little helper is working just a little too well.
The pace could be picked up; having so many short scenes means lots of blackouts that, when not fluid, makes it feel as if the production is continually pressing reset. But that’s the type of thing that will surely be helped by repetition.
What can’t be helped is that Harrison’s play wraps up too tidily. The winners clearly win, and the losers equally clearly lose, but what about the people who matter most—the audience? Tossed the gauntlet of entertaining a choice between an authentic past that can’t help but feel suffocating or a digital present that feels equally suffocating, it’s never clear which is truly the most stifling.
Then again, maybe that’s the point. Wherever you go, there you are. Wherever we choose to toss our hats or hang them, we’re never too far from the only home we can’t escape: the one inside us. And maybe it’s less important to wish away the one we’re in or to pine for a different one, than to make the one we’ve got work.
Maple & Vine’s power couple do just that, albeit by entering a fantasy realm they don’t seem eager to depart any time soon. But I reckon that’s one reason why these dumb things called plays exist: to beckon us down an imaginary path in hopes of reminding us that the real one we’re traversing leads anywhere we choose. And maybe having no direction home is exactly where we’re supposed to be—because we’re already there.
Maple & Vine at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 31. $22-$24.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???