Preview: Ah, for the good old days

CoHo time-travels to Jordan Harrison's 'Maple and Vine,' where life is like a 1950s TV show. Or not.

A simple, happy life, that chimera of the modern world, is just a matter of following the right rules. The good old days are just a wish away.

Well, maybe so, maybe not. But what if someone presented you with just such an opportunity: to trade the frenetic interactivity, the ever-expanding cultural multiplicity of 21st-century America for the comforting bonds and boundaries of a bygone time – say, 1955?

That’s the premise of Jordan Harrison’s play Maple and Vine, which gets its Portland premiere Saturday night at CoHo Theater in a production directed by Megan Kate Ward.

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Harrison and his work have a strong track record in Portland. In 2011, around the time Maple and Vine was about to have its world premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Harrison’s Futura was getting a smartly designed production at Portland Center Stage. Futura had been workshopped at Portland Center Stage’s 2009 JAW playwrights festival, a creative incubator that Harrison also visited in 2005 with the comedy Act a Lady, which later received a full production at the theater. The PCS Futura run overlapped with a staging of Harrison’s Kid-Simple, a “radio play in the flesh,” at CoHo. He also contributed a short piece to a bit of theatrical activism called Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, which Artists Rep presented in 2012.

Ward, a former PCS staff member, became friends with Harrison while they were working together on Futura, and says she’s been interested in working on Maple and Vine since before the playwright took it to Humana. Fittingly, Maple and Vine is part of a loosely linked thematic trilogy with that earlier play and another called Marjorie Prime, to premiere this fall at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

“All of the plays are to do with humanity and technology, the ways in which technology makes our lives easier, and the ways it make it more difficult to be human,” Harrison said in an interview with Ward that she provided to journalists.

In Futura, Harrison used the history of typography as a window into information technology and its surprisingly profound social implications. Maple and Vine is concerned with the effects of information overload and our comparative surfeit of social freedoms. Burned out and unfulfilled as big-city professionals, Katha, a publishing exec, and her husband Ryu, a plastic surgeon, leave Manhattan and join the Society of Domestic Obsolescence, a Midwestern community where everyone lives like it’s 1955. Lattes and sushi aren’t even spoken of; it’s Sanka and Salisbury steak. No Grey Goose vodka, only Smirnoff. And the fact that Katha and Ryu are an interracial couple? Surely someone will notice that.

The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood, reviewing the 2011 production at Playwrights Horizons, wrote that the play “cleverly intimates that all social intercourse, in the 1950s or today, is founded on our assumptions that people will stick to their defined roles.”

In a program note for Playwrights Horizons, Harrison, who is working on turning the play’s concept into a TV pilot, wrote that he’s “probably not the first person to fret that the modern world leaves me increasingly disconnected from other people, and from my own body and mind.” In fact, “Maple and Vine” had its origins in a project by a theater company the Civilians, who asked Harrison to create a play based on hundreds of interviews conducted with Civil War re-enactors, off-the-grid outsider artists, cloistered nuns and others who in some sense have retreated from the mainstream of contemporary American life.

“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out where the show was in all this. And the unifying thread I found was people saying that they weren’t scared of how noisy and fast paced the modern world was….They were so overwhelmed by how much choice they had in the modern world that they wanted more limited freedoms. And that seemed to me a very fertile and provocative and slightly uncomfortable idea that someone would choose to have less freedom.”

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Opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday, continues 7:30 p.m. Thu-Sat, 2 p.m. Sun through May 24, CoHo Theater, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St.; $25 general admission, $20 senior/student, $15 Thursdays, 503-220-2646, cohoproductions.org, boxofficetickets.com

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