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‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ uncovers humor 

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

August 18, 2016

 

 

Jenny Wanasek as Sonia and C. Michael Wright as Vanya in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”
Photo by Paul Ruffolo

MILWAUKEE - Christopher Durang, a prolific, absurdist playwright, has combined a passing salute to Anton Chekhov for setting and themes, but one does not have to be familiar with his work to catch the humor of this piece.

This is the story of a family of three sibs, two of whom are still living in their family home (Vanya and Sonia) and one who has successfully pursued a career in film and is providing support for them (Masha). The two who have cared for their aging parents feel that they have sacrificed everything and have had no chance to develop lives of their own, and the one who supports their existence feels put upon.

After viewing the two stay-at-homes in all their dysfunction and ennui, the diva (Masha) swoops in with her larger-than-life ego and her new boy toy (Spike). They are both self-impressed and in need of attention and affirmation.

Nina, the fifth character, is a young woman who is visiting a neighbor. She stops by to gush over Masha, whom she idolizes. Nina dreams of pursuing a theatrical career herself.

Vanya and Sonia have few pleasures in life. They’re both in their 50s and feel that they’ve missed something, that life is over for them. Sonia especially wallows in her misery. Her idea of life’s only two joys are fixing Vanya’s coffee in the morning and watching for the blue heron that visits their pond. After that, nothing.

Enter their bombastic maid, Cassandra, who is always making dire predictions. She has boundless energy and an abiding faith in her abilities to see into the future. She provides much of the humor. Rána Roman is absolutely perfect in this role.

A costume party at the famous Dorothy Parker’s home is the catalyst for self-revelation and change in all the characters who attend the party. While they’re all pretending to be someone else, they discover sides of themselves they weren’t completely aware of. Though we don’t see the party, we experience its repercussions afterward. One of the most interesting effects is Sonia’s suspicion that she might be attractive to someone after all. 

One of the best scenes in the play is Sonia’s reaction to one of the guests she met when he calls. Jenny Wanasek’s extraordinary talents shine in this scene.

I loved Vanya’s break-out speech when he waxes eloquent over the past. C. Michael Wright aced this scene.

Even Masha (Carrie Hitchcock) reveals that she is missing something in her life: the joy of caring for someone other than herself.

Hitchcock plays the drama queen with verve, JJ Phillips as Spike has the perfect body to contrast with his pea brain, and Elodie Senetra as the dreamy Nina provides a sharp contrast to those who have experienced life and its many disappointments. A little hope never really hurt anyone.

Durang was probably trying to do too much here, the characters are somewhat stereotypical, and the play has no clear through-line, but it is still very enjoyable for its many memorable moments and its incomparable acting. The play is well-directed by Marcella Kearns with an awesome set designed by Brandon Kirkham.
 

AT A GLANCE

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

The play runs through Aug. 28 at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in the Broadway Theater Center at 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee. Call 414-291-7800 or visit Milwaukeechambertheatre.com.