The 1950s were the "Happy Days" in TV sitcom land, where nostalgia for a simpler time struck a chord with viewers in the 1970s and '80s. Thirty years hence, when technology keeps us connected on a global scale 24/7, that yearning has led us to the intersection of "Maple and Vine."
That corner with street names from Anywhere, USA, is the title of Jordan Harrison's play of what-ifs that opens City Theatre's 33rd season.
City Theatre's 2012-13 season
City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden chats with Sharon Eberson about season-opener "Maple & Vine" and beyond, including fresh-from-Broadway "Seminar" and Tami Dixon's "South Side Stories." (Video by Melissa Tkach; 10/4/2012)
Among the what-ifs facing a young couple who opt to consciously turn back the clock: What if you were an Asian-American or if you were gay in that post-World War II time? What if you were perceived as being different in any way?
The conceit here is that the shift in time is all about state of mind. "Maple and Vine" gives you a little "Green Acres" -- a couple dropping out of the rat race -- then hurls you into "The Twilight Zone," where a community forms to re-enact 1955 as a way of life.
Don't expect this quest for the simple life to offer any easy answers.
"It's kind of a Rorschach test for the audience," said Kip Fagan. The director known for shepherding new works also helmed playwright Harrison's "Futura" at the Portland [Ore.] Center Stage.
"It's complicated, and one thing I really love about this play is it doesn't answer the question that it poses. It presents an option of being able to go back to a time where you knew your role in society; it was told to you. We know the inherent danger and flaw and nightmare of that."
He uses the ending as an example, but no spoilers here. "Hopefully you root for [the protagonists] and can be happy when they are happy, even if it's at great consequence."
Artistic director Tracy Brigden could see implications for this election year when she read "Maple and Vine." It reminded her of an editorial she had read about extremists trying to pull the country back to the 1950s.
"It was a time when the white man was the center of the universe, and that's a lot of what's in this play," she said. "And I read the play when the debate was starting to heat up, especially around women and reproductive rights and morality and not just about the law, but really putting over it that kind of '50s sensibility of morality. It disturbs me greatly, so here's a strong reminder of what was underneath all that Ozzie and Harriet happiness -- a lot of ugliness."
PAST AND PRESENT COLLIDE
In "Maple and Vine," Katha and Ryu are married professionals in a rut. She's a businesswoman who has become an emotional wreck after the loss of a baby, and he has been unable to bring her out of her funk. They seize on the chance to join a group dedicated to living as if it's 1955. She leaves her high-powered job and trades in her iPhone for an hors d'oeuvres tray; he finds comfort in excelling at folding boxes in the community factory.
Modern life makes occasional intrusions, and the underbelly of 1950s society adds a sinister tone to the proceedings. Katha goes so far as to embrace the prejudices of the time.
"She really ups the ante in a speech where she asks them to be more period-appropriate and therefore more racist toward them," Mr. Fagan said of the mixed-race couple. There is some shock and dismay among the newly minted 1950s residents, "but in the pursuit of authenticity, it makes a kind of sense. ... It becomes desirous to play by those rules."
The director said he doesn't like to use the word "cult" to describe the communal conformity of "Maple and Vine," but he doesn't shy from some comparisons. To help his cast get in a '50s mindset, they went to see the recently released "The Master," about a charismatic spiritual leader and his followers in the 1950s, and "All That Heaven Allows," a 1955 film by Douglas Sirk, known for his stylish, soapy melodramas.
"It's so wonderfully and baldly coded," Mr. Fagan said of the latter. "The gay subtext of that movie is barely even subtext. At one point, Jane Wyman asks Rock Hudson, 'Do you wish that I was a man?' It's incredible! It's just ravishing, almost avant-garde in its production design. You can't believe [Sirk] got away with it."
If "Maple and Vine" is about escaping to the past, Mr. Harrison's play "Futura" looks at what technology has wrought a few years from now, when handwriting has become obselete.
"Jordan has a really mournful sense of what we're losing with our technological gains," Mr. Fagan said. "So there you have the professor in 'Futura' wanting to return us to our roots of writing with our hands, wanting to pull us back into the past ... and in this play, Katha and Ryu wanting to return to the past because the present is so easy, it becomes a kind of crippling paralysis. I think there are a lot of resonances between the two plays."
"Maple and Vine" has had previous productions, including in New York at Playwrights Horizon, but Mr. Fagan has had the opportunity to continue to work in collaboration with the playwright.
"What's fun for us," Ms. Brigden said, "is that even though the play has been at Humana and Playwrights Horizon, Jordan has come out for the first week of rehearsals, and he's making little tweaks and is really involved in the production. I think even once a play is done in New York, sometimes a playwright really has more to do with it, so it's not just world premieres that get a playwright's attention."
FINDING THE RIGHT LOOK
Mr. Fagan said he felt he had more permission to maneuver because the play has been produced before, rather than concentrating on realizing the playwright's initial vision.
"What I really love about this play is its narrative momentum; it just goes and goes and goes, and secrets are revealed at just the right place, and cards are dealt exactly when they need to be," the director said. "I really wanted to emphasize that over the spectacle of the modern world changing into the '50s world."
"Maple and Vine" ushers its cast from the present to the 1950s, from indoors to outdoors, from room to room, sometimes at the blink of an eye. In the City Theatre production, these changes are realized in costume changes, props and in Narelle Sissons' alley set design, with the audience on two sides of a giant blueprint as the stage.
"I didn't want to sacrifice the narrative momentum to have period wallpaper and have different furniture coming in and out, so Narelle's idea of doing it alley style was appealing," Mr. Fagan said. "An alley configuration is such a theatrical arrangement. You can't have walls, and the audience is always looking at each other, so you are always aware that it's a play, so that gives you permission to make those jumps without building those spaces realistically."
THE CITY EXPERIENCE
Mr. Fagan has forged collaborations with nascent playwrights, including Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network"). The director helped introduce Mr. Eisenberg's first play, "Asuncion," and is now onboard for "The Revisionist," with the actor/playwright and Vanessa Redgrave. The play opens off-Broadway in February, which takes Mr. Fagan home to New York after a year of traveling.
Work in 2012 has taken him to Louisville, Ky., and the West Coast before touching down at here at City. This is Mr. Fagan's first foray into Pittsburgh, although the Nebraska native is a longtime fan of the Steelers, "so this feels like coming home," he said.
"I kind of love this city. I was doing a play previously in the Bay Area, and I find Pittsburgh to be kind of like a Rust Belt Bay Area. I had no idea it was so green and hilly and beautiful, but then also the rusting bridges and blue-collar sense of the city. I'm just having a really great time here."
Mr. Fagan, who is staying on the South Side where City is located, did have one caveat.
"I could do without the 21-year-olds getting together on Carson Street and seemingly screaming toward my apartment at 1:30 in the morning," he said, laughing.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.