Photo: Michael Sung-Ho (Ryu) and Kate Donadio (Katha) in 'Maple and Vine' at Actor's Express running March 22 - April 20. (Image by BreeAnne Clowdus)

‘Maple and Vine’ at Actor’s Express reveals 1950s not simpler times

Beneath its sunny exterior, the new comedy “Maple and Vine” delves into some deeper issues than one might expect, including an LGBT issue. It opens at Actor’s Express next week.

Jordan Harrison’s production, which premiered at the 2011 Humana Play Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, posits an intriguing “what if” proposition. When a Manhattan couple, Katha (Kate Donadio) and Ryu (Michael Sung-Ho), decide that contemporary society is too fast-paced for them, they opt to relocate to a community of 1950s reenactors.

Yet the move doesn’t work out as well as Katha had envisioned. What the couple find is that although the times should be simpler, matters of race, sexuality and gender arise amidst the ever-present Tupperware parties. Although the 1950s may have been slower, views were not progressive and differences weren’t understood.

“The characters think the grass is greener in some other time, but they change in ways they do not expect,” says Kate Warner, the out director helming the play. “It brings out the best and worst in them. The relationships they have evolve.”

Although some gay angles emerge in the comedy, Warner doesn’t want to give away the surprises. Playwright Harrison himself is out and an Actor’s Express vet. The company staged the playwright’s “Finn in the Underworld” as part of its 23rd season.

The director applauds Harrison’s ability to work in an LGBT storyline.

“Years ago it used to be brave to have a coming-out play, but these days these stories deal with life in the mainstream,” Warner says.

Warner moved away from the area in 2009 to take a job as the artistic director at the New Repertory Theatre in Boston.  She is back home now for good now and happy to be here. This gig unites her with many performers she has worked with before, such as John Benzinger, and some new ones as well.

This is her fifth gig at Actor’s Express, following “Pulp,” “The Last Five Years,” “Octopus” and “Next Fall,” all but one of which shared an LGBT component. She also briefly served as the company’s interim managing producer last season. From 2005 to 2009, Warner served as the artistic director of Dad’s Garage.

Her philosophy for working with Actor’s Express is a simple one. “I love working there,” she says. “When Freddie (Ashley, the company’s artistic director) calls, I do it.”

Elaine Stritch doc opens in Atlanta

The life of a Broadway goddess is explored in the new documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” opening in Atlanta this week at the Midtown Art Cinema. The Tony and Emmy Award winner, at 89, is still around and as in demand as ever. Director Chiemi Karasawa, making her directorial debut, captures the stage icon nearing retirement but realizing just how much at home she feels in front of an audience.

The film doesn’t sugarcoat Stritch. Sometimes she can be ferocious and difficult, directing her own scenes. She talks candidly about her drinking problem, how it has affected her career and how she moves forward with it. She also battles diabetes.

She first appeared on Broadway in the late 1940s and has performed steadily since. One of her best-known roles was in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” where she belted out her famous “Ladies Who Lunch” number. She’s done film and TV as well (The documentary includes a scene from “A Farewell to Arms” with Stritch and Rock Hudson.).

A number of LGBT theater folks talk candidly about the performer, including Nathan Lane, George C. Wolfe and Cherry Jones. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin from “30 Rock,” on which Stritch made several guest appearances, also share stories, as does the late James Gandolfini, who says that if he and Elaine had met three decades ago they might have had an “ill-fated affair.”

The interviews are absorbing, but the real prize is Stritch herself, whether she is telling a story or performing. “Shoot Me” is a short feature (less than 90 minutes) that could easily be longer. Nonetheless, no self-respecting theater fan will want to miss it.

“Maple and Vine”
Actor’s Express
887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30318
March 19 – April 20

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”
Midtown Art Cinema
931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta, GA 30308
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