Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Durang's play is set in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and focuses on Vanya, Sonia, and Masha, three middle-aged siblings whose parents were so literarily inclined that they named their three children after characters in Chekhov's plays. Masha is a successful movie actress who is always working, so her two siblings stayed at their childhood home to care for their aging parents. The parents are now both gone and Masha has returned home again to show off her new boy-toy Spike, attend a costume party, and drop some bad news about that house they're all connected to. While Masha worked to pay for the upkeep of the house, Vanya and Sonia feel they have been left behind and are trapped; they have no life outside of the house they were stuck in to care for their parents. It is an interesting view at two sides of an issue that most everyone has to deal with: the care of aging parents, the toll it takes on those involved, and how it can potentially pit siblings against each other.
Durang has borrowed liberally from the plots of Chekhov's dramas in crafting his comedy. The various themes in the playsibling relationships, the selling off of the family home, wasted lives, and even a play within a playall are drawn from Chekhov's plays including The Seagull, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. But you don't have to have an intimate knowledge of Chekhov to enjoy Durang's play.
Cathy Dresbach is excellent as Sonia, who is full of self-pity and feels that she hasn't lived. She comments that, in her life, "nothing ever changes." It is the best written part in the piece with a wide range of emotional outbursts and well-written comic lines, and Dresbach excels in creating a nuanced portrayal. She expertly plays the dramatic and humorous sides of the role, and her heartbreaking but hopeful delivery of a phone call Sonia receives in the second act is a master class in acting. Debra Rich is Masha, a commanding woman who is always used to having her way but also now feels old and vulnerable. Rich does well in instilling a larger than life persona to the part, plus a lot of glamour, which ties in perfectly to Masha being a successful movie star and celebrity. Since Masha is the antagonist of the piece it is rewarding that Rich makes the part slightly comical and likable. This is especially commendable since Durang has written the part to be somewhat unrealistically negative, nasty, and mean to Sonia. Both Rich and Dresbach also add plenty of realism to their parts, especially in how they make us believe their characters are soul searching for the answers to their future and the decisions they make.
Vanya is a less showy role since he is the quiet and mostly subdued observer, and Bruce Laks is fine in the part, especially in how Vanya attempts to mediate at times the insanity that is swirling around him. Vanya has a comical rant in the second act, where he rages on how he misses the past and worries about the future, and while I believe it goes on a bit too long (something I felt even when I saw the original pre-Broadway production of this play), Laks keeps his outburst realistic and heartfelt.
Also in the cast is David Samson, who adds plenty of youthfulness, charm, and even a little stupidity to the role of Spike, all of which works well in creating the carefree nature of the character. Shelby Daeffler is luminous as Nina the young woman who lives next door and she beautifully projects purity and an ethereal quality. Lesley Ariel Tutnik is funny as the comical cleaning lady who has premonition outbursts and occasionally uses a voodoo doll.
Director Dan Schay did a fine job with his direction, with the right balance between the serious and humorous moments, not letting the funny bits get too broad or too out of control. Production elements are good, with Brett Aiken's large set design for the house allowing for plenty of space for the action to unfold. Tamara Treat's varied costume styles align perfectly with each character's specific traits.
While Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike has a couple of flaws in the script and occasional unrealistic characters, it is a modern tale with likable, though slightly odd, characters and a huge heart at its center. It is that heart, along with Durang's smart dialogue that makes this play a warm, comical gem. Theater Works' production features some great performances and is full of warmth and laughs. Schay was the executive director of Theater Works and former managing director at Phoenix Theatre and beloved across the Valley. His work on this production is a fitting tribute to a life dedicated to the arts.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs through April 24th, 2016, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623-815-7930.
Playwright: Christopher Durang
*member Actors' Equity Association