In the original 2011 production of Jordan Harrison’s prescient play, a married couple overwhelmed with the stresses and complications of their lives in the city, leave their high-powered jobs behind, as well as their lattes and laptops, for a simpler world – the one that existed in 1955. A cult has re-created the world of 1955 in a gated community in the Midwest.
In the 2018 revival of “Maple and Vine” at the Flea, the actors and the audience enter another world as well – the world of the deaf.
The five actors in the New York Deaf Theatre production of Harrison’s play all use American Sign Language. The night I attended, many of the audience members were deaf. But hearing theatergoers are clearly welcome as well – two of the actors also often speak in English, there are sound effects such as rainfall and cricket chirps, and the show offers open captions incorporated into the set at every performance, subtitles for both the spoken English and the sign language.
All of this makes for a more complicated world, but also an intriguing one – sometimes despite the adjustments needed, but just as often because of those adjustments. Yes, the running time is nearly an hour longer than the production at Playwrights Horizons. But there are some thought-provoking moments about the nature of language and communication. At one point, the characters play a game of Charades – with one person using gestures and the other partygoers guessing her meaning using sign language.
Ryu (C.J. Malloy) is a Japanese-American plastic surgeon, his wife Katha (Christina Marie) is a supervisor at a publishing house. Katha has been deeply unhappy for at least six months, from the time she had a miscarriage, so she is receptive when she runs into Dean (stand-out Christopher Corrigan) a good-looking young man dressed impeccably in a 1950s suit, wearing a hat and carrying a briefcase. He tells her (and the audience) about the community of which he is a member, SOD, the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence.
“In the modern world, I used to make it through half the day without talking to a single soul. I used to have it so easy. And now, looking back – I realize how lonely I was.”
Katha convinces Rya to move there and try it for six months. They move to a quaint yellow house on the corner of Maple and Vine in the SOD community. She changes her name from Katha to the more conventional Kathy, throws out most of her clothes because the synthetic material with which they’re made didn’t exist in the 1950s, changes her hairstyle, and spends most of her day cooking, while Ryu works in a factory putting together cardboard boxes. Kathy also joins Ellen (Liarra Michelle), Dean’s wife, on the Authenticity Committee, which tries to make sure that everything in the community really belongs to 1955. The committee outlaws birth control pills, because they weren’t invented until 1960, and besides, the role of women in 1955 is to produce babies.
The playwright hasn’t fully worked out all the details in the world he conjures up in “Maple and Vine,” nor created very deep characters. There’s not enough explanation, for example, for why the gay couple in the play moved to a community where they are forced to separate, marry women, and engage only in furtive encounters. But the point of the play is to explore the honest reasons why people are nostalgic for an era with fewer choices, more inconvenience, less tolerance and less freedom — but also less confusion, less isolation, more outward self-confidence.
Ryu and Katha give themselves a “safe word” when they’re in 1955 world, so that they can then discuss the 21st century. It’s amusing that the word they choose is “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” since that is clearly not a word that existed in 1955. But then after the amusement comes a bracing realization. In the last two years, “Maple and Vine” has become shockingly more timely.
Maple and Vine
New York Deaf Theater at The Flea
Written by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Jules Dameron
Lighting design by Anne Wiegand, projection design by Gregory Casparian, scenic design by Jennifer Varbalow, costume design by Lisa Renee Jordan, sound design by Adam Salbert
Cast: Christina Cogswell, Christopher Corrigan, Dickie Hearts, C.J. Malloy and Liarra Michelle.
Running time: three hours including an intermission.
“Maple and Vine” is scheduled to run through May 27