Maple and Vine produced by Frank Theatre at Old Arizona

Wade Vaughn, Katie Guentzel, Sherwin Resurreccion and Tessa Flynn in “Maple and Vine."

Wade Vaughn, Katie Guentzel, Sherwin Resurreccion and Tessa Flynn in “Maple and Vine.”

What if we could just go back to an earlier time, a simpler life, where things were a little more “black and white?” Say, 1955? Would it help us resolve issues in our lives, or would it really be going backwards? That is, ostensibly, the question posed in “Maple and Vine” by Jordan Harrison, a playwright known to Twin Cities audiences and with roots in this theater community. Frank Theatre offers the regional premier as their season opener, running at Old Arizona through Oct. 27.

While the play’s premise is certainly intriguing, and there are individual performances that entertain, the play’s catalog of somewhat random “what-ifs” sets up a problem/solution (more than one, actually) that just doesn’t work. The fundamental dilemma for our lead character (at least Act I’s lead character) is so dark, and provides such a thin thread to its supposed solution, that it’s hard for Act II to put it back together—so it just takes us another direction. Bottom line, the characters lives as they are must be so bad that they have to change; that change has to be either better or worse, and provide an answer—good or bad—that makes sense to us. Neither is true.

Happily, there’s some very good character acting by David Beukema as the aspiring publisher, Omar, and the tortured-in-love Roger. Katie Guentzel as Jenna, Omar’s shallow office pal, and as Ellen, the quintessential 50’s doll, was a beacon of light in this murky plot. When things wandered her direction at last, it was a bright spot. If only she had been given more to do and less to say.

Tessa Flynn as Katha/Kathy settled for a little girl long face, even in moments pleading for profound sadness—or terrifying confusion—and she spoke in a near whisper pretty much all the time.

Sherwin Resurreccion, who has a thoroughly natural and likeable acting style, did as much as one could with Ryu, a plastic surgeon who finds contentment in assembling boxes, because now his wife likes sex again. Come on. The only way that works is if it’s excruciatingly funny. It isn’t.

And what was Dean’s motivation to suppress his closet identity? 1955 might have been a good year to do that, one might argue, but I needed to get there in the first place. Wade Vaughn crafts a consistent and convincing briefcase-toting, fabulous-fifties sorta guy, even managing half-dressed embraces on the floor (gratuitous rather than necessary) with aplomb. That’s what the playwright gave him.

And a writer has some obligation to consider practicalities. The director had to contend with dozens of scene changes requiring endless lights up-lights down, quiet rattling and shuffling in the dark and near trips by actors navigating in the dimness. Why make it so hard?

While Kathy Kohl found some dandy vintage 50’s costumes for delightful visual interest, sound levels were erratic and sound cues misplaced, physically.

Generally, the play is too disjointed, too chopped into little pieces and too long. In the end, I would like to ask the playwright, “What, most of all, did you want to say?”

Then just say that.

That this script has had “legs” in the larger theater world is inexplicable to me. It wasn’t ready, and I’ll stand by that. However, Frank Theatre’s track record is impressive, and their commitment to new work is so commendable. I’ll stand by that, too. Artistic Director Wendy Knox (and director of this production) is and will continue to be a force in this theatre community. I’ll be back to see what Frank does next time.

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