Nostalgia is a potent drug. The lure of a “simpler time” can inspire longing, sadness and even a radical lifestyle change. Now onstage at the Flea Theater in a thoughtful, accessible production by New York Deaf Theatre, Jordan Harrison’s Maple & Vine looks past the chaotic world of 21st-century technology to offer a view of the politics and realities of returning to the past.
Performed predominantly using American Sign Language, with added subtitles, Maple & Vine centers on Ryu (C.J. Malloy) and Katha (Christina Marie), a thirtysomething couple in New York City who are unhappy with their 21st-century lives. A chance encounter on a park bench leads the couple to the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (SDO), a Midwestern gated community whose residents live life as if it were 1955. Encouraged by perpetually chipper community leaders Dean (Christopher Corrigan) and Ellen (Liarra Michelle), Ryu and Katha—now going by the more ’50s-friendly “Kathy,” leave their lives behind, hoping for a fresh start free of modern distractions
Leaving the 21st century behind, however, comes with some uncomfortable realities about how the mixed-race couple’s diverse identities translate to mid-century society—but Ryu and Katha also discover that sometimes there’s freedom in blatant repression. The play transplants its Obama-era protagonists (the play takes place in 2011) to 1950s suburbia, where the white, heterosexual nuclear family reigns supreme. In doing so, Harrison asks how minorities function in society by examining the traditional ideas of racism and sexism as entirely “bad” and equality as “good.” A 1950s housewife, for instance, is described as having a “complicated” role that offers a “different kind of power,” rather than simply a submissive and repressed spouse. After a day at the factory, Ryu, a Japanese-American former plastic surgeon, comes home and tells Kathy about other workers’ low expectations for him because of his heritage, asking: “Is it bad that it feels kind of good?”
Since its premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2011, the play’s questions about nostalgia and identity have gained poignancy in the current “Make America Great Again” age. The idea of regressing to an earlier, whiter era doesn’t feel as removed—and Katha and Ryu’s choice of “Hillary Rodham Clinton” as an unmistakably modern “safe word” to discuss their 21st-century existence takes on an added resonance. Harrison’s script has otherwise aged well. The SDO’s focus on the enticing simplicity of a society free from ever-present technology is perhaps even more relevant in an age where net neutrality and Internet privacy dominate the news, keeping up the SDO’s nostalgic veneer that explains Katha and Ryu’s decision to relocate.
In taking on Maple & Vine with a cast of deaf and hearing actors who primarily speak in ASL, the production, directed by Jules Dameron, has added another layer to Harrison’s identity-focused tale. The production puts its performers with disabilities into a society that catered toward the able-bodied even more than in 2011, deepening the play’s central question: Can we find happiness through a more repressive and “difficult” age? While the play describes the upsides of these mid-century difficulties, the accessible production—which probably would not have taken place in 1955—instead shows off the benefits modern-day technology and catering toward diverse audiences can bring, highlighting the conundrum at the production's core.
The signing by the talented cast adds a dimension of physical expression that enhances Harrison’s words, even if audience members don’t know it. Michelle and Corrigan’s stylized physical performances use ASL to personify the 1950s corniness and gee-whiz enthusiasm that encapsulates their characters’ bubbly façades, while mild-mannered Ryu is well-defined by Malloy’s more tentative signing. Another standout performer is deaf actor Dickie Hearts, whose versatile physicality shines in two contrasting performances: as Katha’s exuberantly haughty colleague Omar and as Ryu’s aggressive yet vulnerable factory boss, Roger.
Beyond the idea of a “simpler time,” though, part of 1950s nostalgia is a reverence for the era’s Technicolor hues and mid-century modern aesthetics, which are only slightly suggested through Jen Varbalow’s bare-bones set design and Lisa Renee Jordan’s period-appropriate yet subdued costumes. Though the set accommodates the production’s need for projected subtitles well, its mix of a short video screen displaying various patterns above monochrome curtains and bubblegum-pink walls feels slightly disjointed, and the production only hints at the mid-century vibrancy that gives the era much of its nostalgic allure.
Still, the production offers a quiet, complex view into this nostalgic world through its strong performances and Harrison’s thoughtful writing. Though Maple & Vine runs slightly too long at three hours, it offers a complex view of the past and how we relate to it that will captivate both deaf and hearing audiences alike.
Maple & Vine, presented by New York Deaf Theatre, plays through May 27 at the Flea Theater (20 Thomas St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For more information and tickets, visit theflea.org.