The opening scenes of the play establish a distance and longing between Ryu and Katha, a young, thoroughly modern couple, circa 2013. They are working professionals, with careers that keep them more plugged in to their work schedules than they are to each other. The lingering pain of Katha's miscarriage and their ongoing struggle to reconnect further strains the couple's relationship. Though they acknowledge their love for each other and express a desire to move forward together, their lives seem to be drifting apart.
Shanara Gabrielle and Alan C. David, as Katha and Ryu, have created sympathetic characters, and there's a profound, almost physical, sadness hanging in the air. Katha's depression leads her to make a drastic choice, and she abruptly quits her job at a large publishing company. A chance encounter with Dean, a resident of a gated community outside the city, sparks hope for a different life in Katha; the more she learns of the community, the more alive she seems to be.
Chad Morris' Dean is completely engaging. His character has an easy air and charisma about him that is perfectly complemented by his up-tempo verbal patter. The community Dean describes is modeled after post-war America, 1955 America to be exact, a time when prosperity lurked in every shadow and neighborly prejudices -- including sexism, racism and homophobia -- were veiled in smiles, jokes and insinuation.
Katha longs to make a fresh start somewhere, and Dean's description of the community he represents, complete with a photo brochure, has immediate appeal. It is harder to understand why Ryu would follow her, and give up his position as a doctor to accept an assembly line job, but even he eventually embraces their new-found community and period lifestyle.
The longer Katha stays in the community, the more committed she becomes to the idea of period authenticity, insisting she and Ryu remain true to their new identities even when they are alone. She even finds a sort of success by becoming an outspoken advocate of developing and strictly following the standards and norms of the time. This zeal leads the character to offer the suggestion that perhaps the members of the community shouldn't be quite so nice to her and her Asian-American husband.
As counterpoint to Katha's fully committed recruit, closeted homosexual Dean, as well as his wife and his partner, played by Michelle Hand and Robby Suozzi, who also double as Katha's 2013 officemates, find their relationships suffering from the strain of the community's social restraints and their self-designated personas. While Katha and Ryu become comfortable with their newly crafted back-stories, Dean and his lover argue about the choice to hide their relationship. Dean's wife begins to break down from the stress of their shared secret as well as her own discontent. This shift, thematically in tune with the central question of happiness, provides the pivot on which the play turns.
The premise of "Maple and Vine" is fascinating. The idea of purposefully rejecting modern conveniences for post-war America, and its corresponding social constraints, is absolutely intriguing. Ultimately, I found the show left me wanting more, however; although I am not certain what I felt was missing. A truth revealed, perhaps, or maybe more of a reason to care for these characters.
Instead of thoughtfully pondering the show's deeper meaning, I found myself poking at holes in the play's logic, and wondering why the climax was centered on the closeted couple rather than the relationship and challenges faced by Ryu and Katha -- now a mixed race couple with a young child in a purposefully prejudiced, cheerfully bigoted community.
"Maple and Vine" is presented by HotCity Theatre through May 18, 2013; for more information or to make your reservation, call 314-289-4063.