Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Christopher Durang
Directed by David Whiteley
Can one find sanctuary in Bucks County, Pa., rather than journeying all the way to Moscow? Is it possible to enjoy Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike without knowing the plays of Anton Chekhov?
To answer the former, you’ll have to see Durang’s show, rendered much more satisfactorily in the second than in the first act by Plosive Productions. As to the latter; no knowledge required.
Oh, there are plenty of references to Chekhov in this often sharp-tongued but ultimately gentle, even wistful comedy, set in rural Pennsylvania. Chief among those allusions: The names of the three main, middle-aged characters — Vanya (Chris Ralph), Sonia (Mary Ellis) and Masha (Teri Loretto-Valentik). The siblings (Sonia, as she likes to remind one and all, was adopted) were named by their academic parents after Chekhov characters, and they spend much of the play seeking their own, true identities.
Other Chekhovian references abound, from quotes from the plays to a riff about a cherry orchard that, at just a dozen trees, hardly qualifies as an orchard at all. But while knowing Chekhov does add a layer to the story, Durang has given us a show — one that at times is very funny, at others poignant or snarling — that stands comfortably on its own.
As we discover in the early going, the grouchily resigned Vanya and the self-pitying lump Sonia live in the family home. They have no jobs and little to occupy their time other than watching the nearby pond for glimpses of the blue heron (Chekhov’s seagull, in case you missed that one), squabbling over domestic banalities, and enduring the incursions of their housekeeper Cassandra (Beverley Wolfe — and yes, Durang works in Greek myth and theatre as well), who claims to have second sight.
Then Masha shows up. An air-kissing and quarrelsome actor who wanted fame on the stage, but instead found it in a series of movies about a nymphomaniac serial killer, she blindsides her siblings’ despairing but predictable life by announcing she plans to sell the house, the upkeep of which she’s been covering for years.
To complicate matters, Masha has in tow her self-admiring boy toy Spike (Drew Moore). A total doofus, he’s prone to stripping to his underwear and flirting with anything that’s sentient including the aging, gay Vanya.
Into the mix also steps neighbour Nina (Sarah Finn), a star-struck wannabe actor herself, but one who apparently doesn’t notice that she, like the siblings, is named for a Chekhov character as well.
There’s a costume party at a nearby home that all but Cassandra attend. There are internecine battles. Spike struts his stuff. And while the early going is bland — under director David Whiteley, the actors don’t initially connect and Wolfe’s Cassandra is way over the top — the show gains traction, so by the second act we care very much what happens to the muddled siblings.
Durang has incorporated, toward the end of the play, a longish rant by Vanya about the depredations of the modern age, how digital technology has divided and conquered a society that once used dial phones and shared television programs like Ozzie and Harriet.
It’s a tricky monologue, but Ralph gets the trajectory just right, creating in us a longing for the good old days that, we secretly know, were as fraught as life has always been.
And isn’t there something pretty Chekhovian about that?
Continues until June 5
Tickets: Box office, 613-233-4523, thegladstone.ca