Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 20, 2015
The Rep is on a roll. Having just opened the marvelously hilarious Buyer & Cellar in their Studio space, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has now opened another brilliant production on their main stage. The Tony-winning comedy by Christopher Durang, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike closes out the Rep’s 2014-2015 season with style, substance, humor and lots of heart. It’s a dream of a production that brings together an intelligent, witty and hilarious play along with marvelous production values and a glorious cast. If I sound like I’m gushing, that’s because I am. This show truly is that good.
A modern story with echoes and elements of Chekhov, the play starts out by introducing us to Vanya (John Feltch) and his sister Sonia (Suzanne Grodner), whose literary and theatre loving parents have named them and their movie star sister Masha (Elizabeth Hess) after characters from Chekhov’s plays. Sonia, who is adopted, has always felt somewhat out of place and unwanted, but although she and Vanya have something of a bickering relationship, it soon becomes obvious that they have a bond, as well. Having spent years caring for their ailing parents who are now deceased, while Masha was off making movies and paying the bills, the middle-aged siblings are left wondering if life has left them behind. When Masha comes home with little notice bringing her young, vain boyfriend Spike (Jefferson McDonald) along, Vanya and Sonia begin to worry even more about their security. A costume party, a young neighbor and aspiring actress named Nina (Gracyn Mix) and the possibly psychic, aptly named housekeeper Cassandra (Shinnerie Jackson) add to the complications as the three siblings are eventually forced to make decisions that will profoundly affect the rest of their lives.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I went to see this play, but it wasn’t this. In a day when dark and cynical stories are common, I suppose that was what I was expecting. This show is possibly the reverse of “dark and cynical”, in that that’s essentially where it starts, but that’s not where it ends up. It’s an exploration of various timely themes such as age vs. youth, substance vs. style, and the importance of family. It also contains several allusions to Chekhov’s works, although the audience need not be familiar with those works to enjoy this play. The characters are well-drawn and complex, with the possible exception of Spike, whose superficiality is actually a major plot point. Other characters, such as the seemingly naive Nina and self-centered Masha, prove to me more complex than they first appear. There’s also Cassandra, who displays some depth of character after first appearing as something of a cliched wanna-be pyschic. Vanya and Sonia are at the heart of the story, and the play takes them on a trip of self-discovery that is at turns humorous and heartwarming. This is one of those plays that has so many levels of connection, from the literary references to pop culture, and from generational conflicts to sibling rivalry and the universal longing to be known and understood. All that said, though, this is also a hilarious play, finding its laughs in situations and in Durang’s witty dialogue.
The six-member cast here is nothing short of wonderful, across the board. This is highly demanding show both physically and emotionally, and ensemble interaction and chemistry is crucial. That chemistry and the energy that the cast members create and share are among the real highlights of this production. Leading the way are Feltch as the sensitive but initially guarded Vanya, who portrays his character’s loneliness, concern and artistic fervor with charm and sincerity. His extended, explosive monologue about the “good old days” in Act 2 is unforgettable. Matching him moment for moment is the delightful Grodner as Sonia, another lonely soul who just wants a chance to express herself and perhaps get a small chance to actually live a life of her own for a change. Her growth as a character and breakout moment as she emerges in a glittery gown for a pivotal costume party are highlights, as is her alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming telephone monologue in Act 2. Hess is also excellent as Masha, so used to being the “belle of the ball”, who faces something of a rude awakening and handles it in a surprisingly sympathetic way. There are also strong performances from Jackson as the confrontational Cassandra, Mix as the initially naive but surprisingly complex and compassionate Nina, and by McDonald as the vain, energetic exhibitionist Spike.
The technical aspects of this play work together to create a colorful, vibrant world for these characters to spend their energy and emotion. With richly detailed, colorful costumes including whimsical Snow White and dwarf outfits, a glittery ball gown for Sonia, and Nina’s modernized hippie-ish look, costume designer Anne Kennedy has done a wonderful job. Adding to the atmosphere as well are the excellent lighting by James Sale, sound by Rusty Wandall, and meticulously appointed, atmospheric set designed by Paul Shortt. The setting of a semi-secluded lake house is well-realized and serves as an ideal backdrop for the dynamic events of the play.
This is a play that I had known only a little about before I saw it, and I was rewarded with a surprisingly mult-layered character study as well as an outrageous and still heartwarming comedy. This is, hands down, the best production I have ever seen at the Rep, and that’s saying something considering their reputation. It’s a funny, warm, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining show, and it really should not be missed. Its a weird, whimsical, wonderful treat.