Seen through nostalgic eyes, everything about the past was better. The world made more sense then; they were innocent times. Doesn’t matter that those assumptions are always off the mark – if you believe something is true, well, it makes it easier to fool yourself.
In the world of Maple & Vine, the play by Jordan Harrison now playing at the Firehouse Theatre, that’s kind of the premise. I use the qualifier because the play is actually about a few other things, but those are the events that start the world of the play into motion.
McLean Jesse is Katha, a most unhappy woman with the recent loss of a child and a high pressured job at the major publishing house who despite having the affections of a loving and successful husband Ryu, played by Xander H. Wong, cannot sleep and moves through her days like a zombie.
After a chance meeting with a man in a Mad Men suit, she is ready to throw off her shackles and relocate to the year 1955 with the help of the SDO – the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence. Okay, it’s not really a step back in time, just a trip to a town that has patterned itself after that year and everyone who lives in this gated and guarded community must conform to the structure of that particular era.
The suit is worn by Dean, played by Landon Nagel, and it is his job to go out into the big city and recruit unhappy people to come to the town. Aided by his perfect 1950’s hostess wife Ellen, played by Addie Barnhart, Katha and Ryu debate the upheaval of their life against the promise of happiness and fulfillment.
Jesse’s character does change through the course of the play. No longer burdened by an outside job, she is free to learn how to take care of a house, bake pigs in a blanket, and take part in the committee to keep their town correct.
The past protects its secrets however and before long paradise is dented by long buried passions rearing up. Modern folk tend to forget that these things existed even back in the day, but were not as openly discussed, so instead of finding common ground on which to build bridges, people chose to ignore them and put walls around those people they felt were outside of their society.
The other newcomer to the Richmond stage aside from Barnhart is Adam Valentine, a VCU Theatre Student and he does a credible job in dual roles. As Roger, he is the interloper, the man who dreams of a different life but is forced to be complacent and it’s driving him crazy. As Omar in the present day, he is a flamboyant stereotype trying hard to stand out.
The sets and costumes were designed by Matthew Allar and they are decent. His costumes for Katha and Ryu show nice contrast and Dean and Ellen are period appropriate as far as I can tell. Andrew Bonniwell’s lights are serviceable – no real pyrotechnics here.
Director Mark J. Lerman has brought a nice sense of pace to the proceedings and manages to even get a few laughs out of the script. It’s a good cast and well played – the subtext may leave you wondering if what you saw was real or some sort of fever dream, but the journey is worth taking.
For 88.9 WCVE, I’m John Porter.