‘Maple And Vine’ at A.C.T.: nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 3/5 Stars » Recommended)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Katha (Emil Donahoe) and Ryan (Nelson Lee) are having a rough time several months after losing their first baby to a miscarriage. They bicker. Ryan is frustrated, Katha depressed. He is a plastic surgeon. She is an editor for Random House responsible for coffee table books. Their lives seem meaningless.

All this is communicated briskly in a series of blackout sketches, clever dialogue and sharp one liners in the style of modern TV sitcoms.

Between the sketches, we meet Dean, an attractive representative of the Society of Dynamic Obsolesence, an intentional community whose residents live full time in a recreated fantasy world set in 1955. They even assume personal histories and circumstances in accordance with a dossier developed with the assistance of an “Authenticity Committee”.

When Katha and Ryan meet Dean and his wife Ellen, they are ready to listen to their pitch and soon abandon their careers to join the Society and move to a house at  Maple and Vine (which gives the play its title.)

At the start, this play appears to be shallow, full of snappy one liners and an interesting but not very exciting premise. But clever playwright Jordan Harrison and director Mark Rucker know what they are about, lulling the audience to believe they are watching a shallow entertainment, slipping them painlessly into 1955 and then letting the bottom drop out.

Married couple Katha (Emily Donahoe) and Ryu (Nelson Lee) are overwhelmed by the stresses of their modern lives in the West Coast premiere of Jordan Harrison's "Maple and Vine" at the American Conservatory Theatre. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

When Katha the editor (now Kathy the housewife) and Ryan the plastic surgeon (now Ryan the boxmaker—persons of Japanese ancestry did not have surgical practices in small town America circa 1955) slip into the past, their manner changes from the shallow banter of turn of the century situation comedy to the seemingly gentler, deeper and more authentic style of the 1950s family based situation comedies where everybody loved one another, snark was a made-up word for a mythical animal, problems could be solved in half an hour, and happiness taken for granted.

The transition is charming. It is easier to like the gentler couple of 1955 than the brittle, snarky hipsters of 2012. When Kathy announces that she has found happiness and is ready to try again to have a baby, Ryan is thrilled and all seems well.

But, of course, there’s trouble in paradise.

Harrison’s play is intelligent throughout and the complex themes of happiness, conformity, nostalgia, the seductive power of cults, individuality and more are addressed with interesting situations, witty and thoughtful dialog, and no shortage of hearty laughter overall.

Emily Donahue and Nelson Lee as Katha and Ryu do an excellent job of moving their characters through a series of transitions, growing and changing throughout. Jamison Jones is thoroughly chilling as Dean (who harbors a secret) and Julia Coffey and Danny Bernardy round out the cast successfuly in the multiple roles of Jenna/Ellen and Omar/Roger.

Designers Ralph Funicello (scenery), Alex Jaeger (Costumes), Russel H. Champa (lighting), and Jake Rodriguez (sound) have a wonderful time recreating the 1950s in scrumptious detail, adding a great deal to the charm of this production.

Maple and Vine continues at A.C.T. through April 22. For further information, click here.

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“Maple and Vine” by Jordan Harrison, produced by  American Conservatory Theatre. Director: Mark Rucker. Scenery: Ralph Funicello. Costumes: Alex Jaeger. Lighting: Russel H. Champs. Sound: Jake Rodriguez.

Katha: Emily Donahoe. Ryu: Nelson Lee. Dean: Janison Jones. Ellen/Jena: Julia Coffey. Omar/Roger: Danny Bernardy.

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