Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang offers Cloverdale Playhouse audiences a deeply fun evening at the theater. Sarah Walker Thornton, Cloverdale Playhouse Artistic Director and director of this play, chose a script that is seriously sweet, funny, and redemptive. It won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play. Thornton’s production at the Cloverdale Playhouse highlights the humor and warmth of the script and showcases the talents of her actors.
But I would like my piece to be a little more than just a review. I’d like to interject a little paean to community theater.
On Saturday evening, Ms. Thornton stepped out on stage and announced just before the play was to begin, “Please, bear with us,” because shortly before the play began, she learned that Masha (Paula Rush Weeks, in the program) would be played that the evening by Maureen Costello. Ms. Costello was thrust so suddenly into the play that she needed to carry a script. As it turned out, we did not need to “bear with” the play, because Ms. Costello was very funny, appropriately histrionic, and hilariously egocentric as the diva middle-aged “baby” of the family.
Resilience and compassion comes from both sides of the “fourth wall,” perhaps especially in community theater. We do not watch from afar, passive lumps in the seats. Unlike images on a screen, the actors respond directly to audiences’ cold shoulders as much as our openness and warmth. We feel that we are “doing theater” together in some way we cannot do anywhere else.
The play offered a lot, as well. Pre-millennial theater patrons can certainly relate to the middle-aged siblings Vanya (George Jacobson), Sonia (Katie Pearson), and Masha (Maureen Costello), who must face their own professional, sexual, and cultural obsolescence. Their grief over their parents’ deaths has waned enough that they now see through the residual miasma of sorrow. And what they glimpse is the end of their own lives.
For 15 years, Vanya and Sonia cared for their professor parents as they dwindled into senescence and incontinence. Vanya and Sonia spent their adulthood in that house, sacrificing themselves to care for their parents, while Masha starred in a franchise of B or C grade slasher movies. Their parents left the family home to Masha, who has long supported them all, and she comes home to sell it.
The family, like their lives, seems to be just about to end.
Sonya, adopted too young to recall her biological family, claims she never married because she has always believed she was in love with her brother Vanya. He grew up gay in the mid-20th century. Neither could marry. Neither has lived out their dreams of love. The “baby” of the family Masha, on the other hand, married five times and traveled the world. But she never really found love, either. Sonia loves to whine at her siblings and complain about her life, but Vanya points out that her “love” for him is a convenient way out of risking real love (and real rejection) and Masha points out to Sonia that at least she was not abandoned five times. All three fear that life is essentially over for them.
Redemption comes from unlikely and rather wonderful sources: the dramatic and psychic young housecleaner Cassandra (Danielle Phillips) and a neighbor girl, Nina (Sarah Worley). Spike, Masha’s “boy toy” and acting protégé, invites Nina into the family circle.
Teenaged Nina is suitably gushy over famous actress Masha and her beautiful “stud” Spike. Her energetic, ingénue warmth buoys the family (even as it threatens Masha’s femininity). But Cassandra is simply magical, both the character and Ms. Phillips’ performance.
You will have to go to the play to learn the fate of the family, and how Cassandra (unlike her namesake the unheeded prophetess of Troy) affects the family and home. She brings her strange magic to an otherwise drab and ordinary family, a family probably too much like all of ours, and she saves us all from misery.
And that is just what community can do – save us (at least a little bit) from ennui, and maybe from misery.
Vanya, Sonia, Masha, and Spike will be at the Cloverdale Playhouse on Fairview this weekend. For more information call 334.262.1530, or look online at CloverdalePlayhouse.org.
Dr. Lynne D. Schneider, Assistant Professor of English at Alabama State University, moved to sunny Montgomery from the frigid north (Upstate New York), delighted to discover that she had accidentally packed her windshield scraper. She taught at SUNY Delhi, Broome Community College and Binghamton University. She worked for her local newspaper, earned her doctorate at Binghamton, and was Art Editor for BU’s Harpur Palate literary journal. Schneider won a poetry residency at The Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, New York, and her poetry has appeared in The Patterson Review and other journals. She also published “Stuffed Suits and Hogwild Desire,” a chapter in Kermit Culture, the first scholarly study of Jim Henson’s Muppets.