Maple and Vine
Nick DePinto, Amanda Tudor, Em Whitworth, and Jacob Yeh star in Maple and Vine at Spooky Action Theater; Credit: DJ Corey Photography

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Critics have expressed laughs and frustration at Olivia Wilde’s ambitious yet precarious Don’t Worry Darling. Wilde’s film imagines a romanticized 1950s dreamworld, presenting an interesting take on current day misogyny and its relationship to the 1950s. However, Don’t Worry Darling fails in a number of ways, most significantly its absence of a meaningful plot and minimal depth of character for the film’s alleged heroine, Alice (Florence Pugh). With a hodgepodge of household names, the film seemed destined for greatness, but it’s received more critique than praise. Fortunately for D.C theatergoers, there is a chance to see this 1950s horror story done right. 

Spooky Action Theater’s Maple and Vine is a riveting phantasm that transports its audience backwards in time. Directed by Stevie Zimmerman, Jordan Harrison’s dark comedy introduces a world where “utopia” is possible—but only if you’re willing to give up modern day luxuries and distractions and move to a “perfect” simulation of 1955.

The politics of consumerism are at the forefront of this play. Specifically, the way that they impact and reflect the figure of the “1950s Housewife.” In regards to Don’t Worry Darling, the New York Times writes, “The movie’s take on gender roles is stinging, but its targets are amorphous (yes, agreed, sexism is bad) … and its take on the prison-house of the traditional feminine role—is shallow.” Don’t Worry Darling is a colorful simulation of a distorted fantasy of the 1950s. Yet, it gives all of its power to male viewership in the past and present by implying that the 1950s were a chauvinist fantasy, which we therefore must reject without complication. 

Coincidentally produced at the same time this movie premiered, Spooky Action Theater’s Maple and Vine dares to complicate what Betty Friedan famously referred to as the “Feminine Mystique” of the 1950s. The film implies that sexism celebrates the “1950s Housewife,” whereas Harrison’s play correctly locates modern misogyny in the fear and control of that very housewife. This is best exemplified in the play’s conspicuous “who wears the pants” debate. Unlike in Wilde’s film, which seems to say “sexism is bad,” Harrison writes women characters with complicated agency and deep, intentional ambiguity. His vision of the housewife is decidedly more nuanced and ferociously more complex. 

Paying homage to films like Pleasantville, Harrison pulls his archetypes straight out of a sitcom. The play begins with a distraught Katha (Em Whitworth) unable to sleep and deeply unhappy with her fast-paced life and cut-throat career. Her husband, Ryu (Jacob Yeh), a Japanese American surgeon, affectionately comforts her in the middle of the night, and is similarly grieving their shared loss of a child. Katha and Ryu’s narrative is interrupted by an infomercial-like address by Dean (Nick DePinto), an Ozzie Nelson lookalike, and his wife, Ellen (Amanda Tudor), who promise relief from the distractions and indulgences of the modern world. They reveal a utopian community in small-town America called the Society for Dynamic Obsolescence. 

Things are simpler in the SDO—an illusory promise that quickly enthralls Katha. Dean explains this very appeal to the audience:

“If you’re a gardener, you garden—you won’t get invited into the house of the man you’re working for. If you are a homemaker, you make your home. That’s what you do … You are not free. But, in a way, you are more free.”

At Katha’s insistence, she and Ryu abandon their modern clothes for elaborate 1950s garb (courtesy of Alison Samantha Johnson). In this community, they give up all modern convenience and ways of thinking—including international foods, any sexual or gender identies outside of cisgender heterosexualism, and all advanced technologies. Though hesitant at first, Katha is won over. She enjoys creating with her hands, engaging with neighbors, and wants to start a family. However, with World War II’s Japanese internment still in the rear view of the SDO’s fantastical community, we soon find out that Dean and Ellen’s promise might be too good to be true.

In addition to the racial tensions that arise, the need to consume is almost as strong as the need to control, and self-surveillance or “authenticity” to the 1950s might corrupt the characters once and for all. Katha soon discovers she appreciates the control of homemaking just as much as she did climbing the corporate ladder. At the beck and call of the “Authenticity Committee,” Katha soon adopts the new persona of Kathy, who becomes a little too committed to the distorted values of the 1950s. In a sense, Kathy’s descent does not merely forget how far we’ve come, but reminds the audience of how far we still have to go to correct the structures of consumerism, patriarchy, and racism. 

While living every day in a “dream world,” the SDO is Katha’s new reality, though she still wakes from nightmares every morning. The dream sequences were a true highlight of the play, as they distort what is real and what is not in the cultlike infrastructure of the SDO. Katha’s insomnia of the present and nightmares in the past are yet another paradox Harrison’s play grapples with. With an already complex script, Zimmerman’s direction and Hailey LeRoe’s lighting design add yet another level of fantasy to this production. 

Like an episode of The Twilight Zone, Maple and Vine spins a chillingly complex web. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s scenic design is at first minimal, but the walls open to reveal a sitcom-esque kitchen that will soon become Katha and Ryu’s home on “Maple and Vine.” Crucially, the room is always framed as a literal television screen. But the 1950s aren’t just what we see on TV, it is impossible to see reality through the humdrum simplicity of a black-and-white sitcom.

Under Zimmerman’s direction, Harrison’s stellar script animates engrossing performances from all; with kudos extended to the women characters in particular. Whitworth’s Katha charms and enrages audiences. Tudor’s Ellen never misses a beat, topping it off with a final monologue that will leave audiences breathless. Though Maple and Vine is not “horror” in the traditional sense, it is a disturbing examination of an American social macabre. 

Maple and Vine, directed by Stevie Zimmerman and written by Jordan Harrison, plays at Spooky Action Theater through Oct. 23. spookyaction.org. $20–$40.