Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Maple and Vine
There's a perpetual sense of excitement and hilarious pretense, and a whiff of daring overthrow in the American Brigadoon unveiled in act two of Jordan Harrison's 2011 play, because the audience knows it's always the night before the march on Selma, or maybe just hours until the Stonewall riots, in the button-down world of Maple and Vine.
I'm not sure why this play filled with characters yearning for a simpler, more stylish time should work so well. It may be that gleeful sense of historical inevitability, that things will get better for oppressed minorities any second now, if we just pretend to turn the clock back and let our own twenty-first century sensibilities come to their rescue in a falsified version of the Eisenhower era, with the end of the polio scare, and the first US advisors flying off to South Vietnam. Or it may be the way they sabotage their own happiness, with so great a satirical edge.
But I am sure that a lot of Maple and Vine's success is bound-up in the unbearable tension of Shanara Gabrielle's electrified performance in act one, as a harried Random House editor; contrasted with her glowing exuberance in act two, once she and her loyal husband (the funny, natural Alan C. David) take the plunge into a cult-like re-staging of Midwestern life, circa 1955.
And then the tragic consequences of rebellion, as drawn by director Doug Finlayson, begin to blossom like a fine, three-hankie Cinemascope movie, perfectly in line with the tenor of the "times." Indeed, the whole show explodes in all sorts of unexpected directions. It seems that a lot of former big city natives have chosen to throw it all away, to pretend to go back in time, with the same precision and dedication they brought to their old professional careers.
But the real fun begins when they each, privately, decide to 'game the system' in "1955" for their own reasons. Getting their modern way and then crying in their nostalgic chains seems highly romantic to these former denizens of New York (and, admittedly, to me too), prompting Ms. Gabrielle to ask, "is straitlaced the new 'shocking'?"
I'd love to spoil a few of the better insights of the show, but suffice it to say that Chad Morris and Michelle Hand are supremely stylish as "recruiters" for their secret, middle-American town. And Robby Suozzi is just fussy enough and just tidy enoughand just bitchy enough (all somehow without becoming stereotypically gay)as Ms. Gabrielle's editorial assistant in act one. Then, on top of that, he's smoldering as a back door lover in the second half.
Director Finlayson achieves a perfect pace and shows respect for the actors, who are each allowed a little horrified numbness every now and then, at the unexpected consequences of their new lives. And it's really the show we've been waiting to see actress Michelle Hand in, for years and years: funny, wry, and unbearably sad.
Like the 1958 movie Vertigo, they all know exactly what they're doing to ruin their new/old lives, but they just can't seem to stop themselves: grabbing their modern freedoms, under the exciting glare of some ginned-up post-war disapproval, just as they're inwardly dancing on each other's modern hearts.
Through May 18, 2013, at the Kranzberg Arts Center at 501 North Grand (the old Woolworth's), a block south of the Fox Theatre, and a mile north of I-64 in mid-town St. Louis. For more information visit them at www.hotcitytheatre.org or call (314) 289-4063.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the association of professional actors and stage managers in the USA.
Photo: Todd Studios