The following essay was originally published in the January/February 2011 Inside Actors blog, and was republished in Humana Festival 2011: The Complete Plays, edited by Amy Wegener and Sarah Lunnie, along with the following production history. The full text of this publication can be found here.
Maple and Vine publication history:
Maple and Vine was commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. It was originally developed by The Civilians, and written with support from Guggenheim and Hodder Fellowships. It also received developmental support from Playwrights Horizons, the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School New Works Festival, and the Kesselring Fellowship through the Orchard Project and the National Arts Club. Maple and Vine premiered in the 2011 Humana Festival, and has been seen at Playwrights Horizons in New York, A.C.T. in San Francisco, and Next Theatre in Chicago.
About Maple and Vine
“First of all, welcome. Welcome to the SDO.
I bet you’re all feeling pretty anxious.
‘Am I going to use the right words.’
‘Am I going to walk the right way.’
I mean gosh, you’ve just taken a pretty huge step, right?”
As Maple and Vine draws us under its spell, Dean, a charismatic man wearing an “immaculate 1950s suit and well-shined wing tips,” stands before the audience, brightly beckoning us toward a better future that’s fashioned from the past. In the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, it’s a perpetual and compulsively authentic 1955 – a carefully constructed community without lattes or cell phones, where a housewife prepares supper for her husband every night, the neighbors are neighborly, and everyone has a dossier that determines their identity. Trading the dizzying choices of the 21st century for clearly defined social roles (and the rich drama of repression), the denizens of the SDO have left the modern world for one with sharper boundaries. But what does it mean to relinquish some freedom in exchange for happiness?
With a potent mix of searching humanity and delightfully dry humor, Jordan Harrison’s new play examines this question through the experience of Katha and Ryu, a thirtysomething New York City couple mired in an unshakeable urban malaise. Facing sleepless nights and the repetitive exhaustion of her publishing job, Katha loves her husband but is at a loss about how to reengage with the world – until a chance meeting with the dapper Dean gives her new hope. At first bemused by this – and, as a Japanese American doctor married to a white woman, wary of “authentic” 1955 prejudices – Ryu begins to feel the pull of the SDO and the promise of his wife’s contentment, of leaving the deadening grind of their lives behind. “Katha and Ryu describe it as a question of happiness,” Harrison explains, “but I think the real question they’re asking is ‘How can I feel like myself again?'”
The playwright’s fictional foray into a sequestered community was inspired by research on real groups that have chosen to withdraw from the modern world. Initiated by director Anne Kauffman (who helmed the Humana Festival production) with the theatre company The Civilians, the project began with “upwards of 100 interviews with the Amish, cloistered nuns, Civil War reenactors, and off-the-grid artists living in the wilds of Maine,” says Harrison, “all kinds of people who retreat from the modern world for different reasons.” He was brought on board in 2008, as a writer who could bring some creative distance and narrative shape to the raw material: “My job was to edit and splice all of that language into something more like a play,” he recalls. Actors Theatre of Louisville and Berkeley Repertory Theatre signed on to co-commission the script, and Harrison dived in.
An initial stab at weaving the interviews together took Harrison in an entirely new direction, though, when he discovered that a tale set in an imagined context would actually serve the project better than a documentary approach. “I’ve taken the concerns of those who were interviewed, and invented a whole other society based on them,” he notes. “There are only four or five sentences from the original transcripts that are in the play – everything else is gone – but it still feels fertilized by those ideas.” Reading the interviews, Harrison was fascinated by a recurring thread: “Instead of the modern world being too noisy and fast-paced for these people, it was actually too quiet. They were almost frightened by how much freedom they had, and so they traded in a measure of that freedom in exchange for more of a social structure, for a community enforcing the rules.”
From those impulses, the SDO was born, complete with steak-and-martini lunches, period undergarments, and an Authenticity Committee that enforces era-appropriate aesthetics, values and behavior. Here, the last half-century of history doesn’t exist. “I was drawn to the 1950s,” Harrison explains, “because there were such clear rules – and roles. Everyone was watching over you with certain expectations. It’s tantalizing to the dramatist, because so much is under the surface that you really get to feast on subtext.” Equally appealing were the period’s style and otherworldliness: “It’s an era that has a certain romance for me – a time when people looked good in their clothes and drank sophisticated drinks,” he laughs.
The stylish, well-ordered allure of this society and its troubling limitations are two sides of the coin for the playwright – and the play stirs both feelings as we watch Katha and Ryu step away from their 21st-century lives, and deeper into their new identities as a box factory worker and housewife. “It’s both a little scary and a little seductive,” says Harrison. “The notion that less freedom could make you happy is a morally problematic idea, it’s a controversial idea, and it’s one of the things that I’ve been most excited about in working on this play.” As Katha and Ryu begin to learn what their new neighbors have been willing to sacrifice for happiness, they make some surprising discoveries about what they themselves would do – and along the way, so do we. Harrison admits,” I’m hoping that the audience thinks, ‘I would never do something like that…. Or would I?'”