The Ridgelea Reports on Theatre
Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” at Hartford Stage thru June 15
Two college professors and a clever playwright made a family that lived in Bucks County and resembled nothing so much as a composite Chekhov play. The playwright: Christopher Durang. His characters: Vanya (Mark Nelson), Sonia (Caryn West), Masha (Leslie Hendrix). These are all names familiar to Chekhovians. The parents (and Durang) arranged that their children would be named for famous characters from Dr. Chekhov’s dramas. “How could they not know that we would be teased and tormented with these names?” Vanya complains. But now, in their 50’s (more or less) the three are having a reunion. Masha, a movie actress is dropping in to say hello and take them all to a neighbor’s costume party. Sonia and Vanya have never left their Bucks County homestead. They stayed to take care of their aging parents (now dead) and then just vegetated sadly watching the blue heron on the pond and their tiny cherry orchard. Neither has been married. Masha, on the other hand, has gone through five husbands while keeping up her career.
There are a few other important characters in the play. Vanya and Sonia have a black cleaning lady named Cassandra (Stacy Sergeant) who is both psychic and equipped with a little skill in voodoo. A gentle young neighbor named Nina (Andrea Lynn Green) fawns over Masha, but Masha fears that Nina will also attract Spike (David Gregory), her equally young love interest. Spike is an unforgettable gym and fitness buff, prone to shedding clothes and constraints in order to display his muscles and do stretches in what seems to be a series of very seductive poses.
So that’s the team. There they are, gathered in the country house, with sad memories and a strange old servant. Lamenting how to keep up the little estate. Bickering among themselves about who is the saddest, and how to allow the real selves they have squandered to be recovered. Masha wants to sell the house, saying she is running out of money. With a boost from Cassandra, she realizes that her family and their home have meaning.
Christopher Durang is a true Chekhov fan. His adaption of these characters into a modern time and place is brilliant. Maxwell Williams has staged the production with flair, on an imaginative set (Jeff Cowie) that opens the Bucks County farmhouse to the pond and the audience. Costumes, key to the production, are designed by Tricia Barsamian, and the lighting by John Lassiter and music and sound by John Gromada also are significant. But the Oscars go to this amazing cast who manage to be both extreme and subtle in developing the roles they inhabit. Highlights to watch for are Caryn West and the coffee mugs, and her wonderful take-off of Maggie Smith, Stacy Sargeant’s paranoid visions, Leslie Hendrix ego-maniacal manipulation of everyone in range of Masha, and Andrea Lynn Green’s tender opening of ‘Uncle Vanya.’ David Gregory’s hilarious posing, along with the body involved, deserves its own award, but the least forgettable moments are Mark Nelson’s ode to licking postage stamps and telephones with holes for fingers in a dial that took forever to reach 999-9999. It is a spectacular fireworks that ties the long play into a handsomely arranged ribbon of style and substance.
Hartford Stage is asking the audience to comment on whether they liked this production. I certainly did.
Tickets and information at www.hartfordstage.org or 860-527-5151
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre
May 29, 2014