By Kim Jackson
As directed by Mike McGee, Forest Moon Theater’s production of the Tony Award-winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike offers a wry view at three siblings, each going through a midlife crisis.
Sonia and Vanya’s existence hasn’t changed much since their parents died 15 years ago. They continue to reside in their Bucks County (PA) farmhouse. They drink their morning coffee on the screened-in porch, watching for the return of a blue heron to the pond. Life hasn’t gotten much more exciting than that. So when Masha, the third sibling who left to pursue an acting career, appears with her latest (and much younger) escort, Sonia and Vanya’s mundane lives are thrown into high relief.
The Chekhov references do not end with the names of the characters (their parents were academics after all), and the playwright, Christopher Durang, has sprinkled a fair amount throughout the plot. He seems to take great delight, as do his characters, in quoting lines from various works by the Russian playwright. Some allusions will be missed, or not fully understood, but most times the delivery prompts a comic response. And that mixing of Chekhovian elements with a modern sensibility elevates what could have been a routine melodrama into a darkly humorous reflection on the choices made, the paths not taken, and how those unrealized desires nag more as one gets older.
When the play begins, Sonia and Vanya operate like an old married couple who bicker over small things to pass the time. They’ve developed routines to cope with the claustrophobic dullness of their daily lives. Morrisa Nagel’s Sonia despairs at having felt she’s missed out, while Chris Brown’s Vanya responds to everything with an Eeyore-like resignation. Their gloomy outlook is furthered only by the dire predictions of their housekeeper, Cassandra, delivered with an exaggerated East European accent by an animated Shana Fisher.
This less than idyllic situation is interrupted by Masha’s arrival and her announcement that she intends to sell the family home. Christine Rogers as Masha maintains the persona of a self-absorbed fading starlet who is painfully aware of her ever-changing appearance and is employing an exhibitionist young stud to distract herself. Tim Fitch’s Spike fills the bill with a well-toned body and boyish charm.
But it is really the appearance of Nina, a neighbor’s visiting relative, that livens things up a bit. Amanda Axelrod’s Nina bursts on the scene, fangirling all over Masha and gushing about her own desires to become an actress. Her wide-eyed wonder charms the group and soon she is absorbed into their circle. Her presence shifts the familial dynamics in significant ways.
There are some truly engaging moments in this dramatic comedy, or perhaps more accurately, drama with comic elements. Durang provides avenues of release for everyone, and each finds a way to move forward incrementally, a mirror of how life changes subtly as we age.
And maybe that is part of the problem with this production. While it has some fine performances, it felt almost too restrained. Since Nina, Cassandra, and Spike are already colorful characters, the challenge is to keep them from becoming caricatures. For the most part, these actors successfully negotiate that tension. The task for the other half of the ensemble is to convey more complex emotions. Nina benefits from a colorful backstory, and yet her self-absorption wasn’t given full rein. Sonia’s desperation for change is palpable, but she is too wary of embracing it when it is offered. Vanya’s revelatory monologue takes on a professorial, rehearsed tone rather than building up to a natural crescendo; he is more animated in his exchanges with Nina. All of these characters are looking for a release, and we want that for them. However, here things just land very softly.
Forest Moon Theater’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through June 23rd at The Renaissance Centre in Wake Forest. For more information visit https://forestmoontheater.org.