Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Theater review: Find out if family can conquer adversity in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
If the house is the glue that keeps these siblings together, how will they fare when it's sold?
DALLAS With the regional premiere of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Uptown Players earned yet another jewel for the D-FW theater crown. It seemed like mere weeks passed between the American Theatre Wing’s announcement of VSMS’s 2013 Tony win for "Best Play" and Uptown Players’ announcement of its current season – what a coup!
Set in present day Bucks County, Pennsylvania, VSMS spins the tale of a trio of siblings who arrive at some stark realizations when faced with the possibility of selling their family’s homestead farm. Though in their 50s, Vanya and Sonia never left home, instead accepting and shouldering the lengthy responsibility of caring for their Alzheimer’s-ridden parents. Sister Masha, a semi-successful film star, supports the family from the West Coast by paying all the household and medical bills, as well as a stipend for both Vanya and Sonia.
As the story unfolds, Durang paints his characters with a color wheel of emotion, peppering every scene with honest, relatable humor. He pays homage to the works of Anton Chekhov, renowned late-19th century dramaturge and playwright, by recognizing him throughout VSMS in the form of character names (Vanya, as in Uncle Vanya) and settings (the farmhouse’s tiny cherry orchard). Relying on the standard formula, I expected Act I to be filled with character introductions and a slow build of action leading to some type of real crisis that is then brought to a conclusion in Act II. While the story follows that basic formula, it felt more like a longer-than-normal Saturday Night Live skit, and I was left with a feeling of “Huh…that’s it?" Selling the house is the big trauma?” With the advantage of some additional time to ponder the play, however, I realized not every story has a Law and Order: SVU ending. And for Vanya and Sonia, the loss of the family home represents a nearly epic catastrophe.
Each scene takes place in the morning room (or “mourning room” as Sonia cheekily refers to it) with a view of the pond at the rear of the house, and the representative set was stunning. Set designer Clare Floyd Devries employed every available inch of the stage, from wing-to-wing, to create the wonderful stone farmhouse. Combined with the set dressing and properties talents of Kevin Brown and Jo Anne Hull respectively, not a speck of the stage was left unattended. The structure itself was a mammoth, gabled frame faced with randomly-sized fieldstones, and supported by a gigantic, rough-hewn beam. Two tall, robust spruce trees stood sentry on either end of the house, and a charming, hammered metal wind vane topped the covered passageway from the house to the driveway. The room itself was bedecked with a padded rattan love seat and matching chairs, along with a wooden buffet and a large area rug covering a slate-looking floor. The steps leading up into the open section of the house were also made to resemble slate, and the interior walls of the house were painted a lovely peacock blue. Decorative plates and framed pieces of art in varying sizes dotted the walls of the interior space. All told, the space was warm and comfortable and dazzlingly detailed in its particulars.
Jason Foster’s lighting design was very subtle, warm and hazy, so much so that the room was flooded with natural morning light. The performers were never in shadow, and the lighting scheme was appropriately altered to reflect the applicable time of day. Director B.J. Cleveland served double duty as the show’s sound designer, and while there was a technical glitch or two during the performance, Cleveland addressed this issue with the audience directly and with his standard good humor. The music played before the curtain rose and during scene changes was upbeat and jazzy, though the most recognizable song of the evening was The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” in the final scene. It was fun watching the siblings nod their heads in appreciation of the George Harrison classic; finally, something upon which they could all agree.
Suzi Cranford’s costume choices were fun and appropriate to each character. The play opens with Vanya and Sonia in their sleeping attire, taking their coffee (or at least trying to) in the morning room. Vanya was dressed in a cream-colored men’s sleep shirt and slippers while Sonia wore a loosely fit checkered robe and an endearingly disheveled coif. Masha entered the action wearing a fitted black jacket and pants that actually looked to be navy. While the clothes fit nicely, I was surprised Masha’s attire wasn’t bolder and more befitting her celebrity and character. Cassandra, the family’s housekeeper, donned full, colorful skirts, and belts and headbands that reflected her (seemingly) Caribbean heritage. Spike, Masha’s 20-something boy toy, wore almost nothing at all. Masha’s visit to Bucks County was premised on attending an acquaintance’s costume party, which is where the fun really begins. Let’s just say Walt Disney was well represented.
Borrowing from Greek mythology, Cassandra the housekeeper is blessed with the gift of second sight, but also cursed with never being believed. While only present in a handful of scenes, Nadine Marissa ate up the stage with her dauntless performance. Her delivery and eye-popping facial gestures made nearly every line hysterical. Marissa was especially funny when eavesdropping from the interior kitchen, and then bursting through the adjoining window out into the sunroom with a catty refrain, or some other type of unsolicited commentary. She was also a whiz with a voodoo pin.
Whilst vacationing with her aunt and uncle, young Nina ventures over to the neighboring Hardwick home in hopes of meeting Masha, whom she admires. Julia Golder played the aspiring actress with earnest and genuine bonhomie. Nina quickly and easily endears herself to everyone in the house except for Masha who is threatened by the attention Spike is paying to Nina. Golder was unflappable in transitioning between the snubs she received from her hero and the affection she received from everyone else. She was particularly exaggerated and amusing while dressed in a toga to play the part of a molecule during a reading of Vanya’s secret play.
Evan Fentriss was the ideal physical specimen to play Spike, as his chiseled features and sculpted six-pack abs tempted both Masha and Vanya alike. His acting was less impressive in that his line delivery was rather flat and tedious, and he seemed to substitute gymnastics and athleticism as his chosen method of emotional conveyance instead of varied facial expressions or tonal changes. Oddly, Fentriss was at his best when recreating his one-sided audition for the television show, Entourage 2. His delivery during this monologue was paced well and conveyed considerable humor.
The character of Sonia, wondrously played by Wendy Welch, is rutted in familiarity and routine. Sonia doesn’t work, doesn’t go out with friends, and she is mired in self pity and middle aged gloom. Welch deftly managed to channel all of these characteristics, all the while remaining likable to the audience. She wore little make up, plain clothes and portrayed Sonia as down and out. Welch spared no emotional expense while delivering Sonia’s costume character of “The Evil Queen as portrayed by Maggie Smith on her way to the Oscars.” The spot on accent and pinched facial features, along with sweeping hand gestures, easily poised Welch’s Dame Maggie impression as the funniest scene of the play. She was irresistibly charming during the scene with the telephone exchange, resulting in an extremely poignant and touching moment in the show.
As Masha, Diana Sheehan was a skilled and gregarious contradiction to both of her character’s siblings. From the moment Sheehan entered the stage, she was decidedly in charge of it. Whether ignoring Sonia or ordering Spike around, Sheehan commanded attention by using her full voice, erect posture and purposeful movements across the set. Masha is obviously a woman used to getting what she wants, and Sheehan conveyed that trait with ease by adding a small whine to her voice or a pouty curl to her lip whenever necessary. Her scenes with Cassandra were particularly funny, especially as she hollered and jumped around after being stung with the voodoo needle. Sheehan introduced us to Masha’s softer side as she revealed vulnerability about her age and paranoia that Spike might love another.
Bob Hess seemed so comfortable in his skin as Vanya that I worried the part might not be challenging or equally matched to his magnificent talent. Vanya is rather reserved and undemonstrative, and while Hess managed Vanya’s quietude easily, I was entranced by his lengthy monologue in Act II. Sparked by Spike rudely answering a text message during the reading of Vanya’s play, Hess maniacally launched into a diatribe with commentary on how much better life was in the time of I Love Lucy. He paced the floor of the morning room and raised his voice and fists to the heavens, and then fell to his knees when reminiscing about a point in time he deemed so much better than the present. If an actor was going to drop a line, this monologue scene might be an understandable breaking point, but Hess continued through with amazing timing and accuracy. What a terrific performance.
Congratulations to B.J. Cleveland and Uptown Players for getting Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike to Dallas audiences so quickly. Though Christopher Durang’s story didn’t engage me as deeply as I’d hoped, the gorgeous set and wonderful ensemble cast are worth the trip to Uptown.
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