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Located in the comparative wilderness of Bucks County, PA, on a country lane named Holly Hock Road is a comfortable old farmhouse that houses a pair of old anachronisms named Vanya and Sonja. No, we are not caught in some Chekhovian time warp; this brother and sister are two modern day relics named by their professorial parents after characters in plays by Anton Chekhov. They named their son Vanya and their two daughters Sonja and Masha. Masha has since gone off to New York and Hollywood and become a film actress; Vanya and Sonja have stayed in Bucks County. Their principal reason for doing so was to care for their aging and ill parents in their golden years. It has been about fifteen years now since their parents passed, and Vanya and Sonja are still in Bucks County. They are now both in their fifties and lament that their own lives have passed them by while they were otherwise engaged.
This is the premise of Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonja and Masha and Spike. This witty comedy examines what happens when seemingly Chekhovian forces bear down on a family whose children have taken very different paths to adulthood and what happens when those two paths suddenly veer and again converge. Forest Moon Theater, located in the Renaissance Center in Wake Forest, opened the play last night. Set in the present day, Durang's original script, written in 2013, has been updated to reflect 2019. Thus, we get references to "Law and Order, SVU" and "CVS Pharmacy" rather than their 2013 equivalents. But those are the only changes that seem to have occurred since I saw the play so many years ago. That being said, this staid and static comedy is a very different animal than the one I saw back then.
Vanya (Chris Brown) and Sonja (Morrisa Nagel) are brother and sister, yes, but Sonja was adopted at the age of eight by Vanya's folks and brought to live here in the old farmhouse. Since that time, the two have grown up together. However, confined as it were to the local countryside, and being occupied with caring for their folks, the two have met very few outside neighbors, and have kept very much to themselves. Their relationship is somewhat strained now because Sonja has grown to have feelings for Vanya that a sister should not have for her brother; add to that the additional aspect that Vanya is gay. Thus, for two very good reasons, Vanya cannot return Sonja's feelings in kind. Now that the parents who took up their time have passed away, this damaging situation has worn on them both; they seem to have settled into a living arrangement similar to an old married couple who are too set in their ways to change. They truly are not happy living this way but they know of no other life for either of them. So they stay. Not so with the younger sister, Masha (Christine Rogers). She had gone off to school to become an actress, and has since made quite a name for herself in film. She has inherited the house where Vanya and Sonja live, but she very seldom visits them, as her duties take her elsewhere. But she is set to come and visit today, and that is a frightening aspect to both Vanya and Sonja. They fear that her visit will be one of upheaval for them, despite the fact that they are unhappy the way they are. They still do not wish to change.
This is the situation into which Masha drops herself when she arrives with another, much younger, actor in tow. Spike, the young man arriving with Masha, is only in his twenties. He has all the markings of a young stud; he likes to take his clothes off and uses any excuse to bare, as it were, his sexuality. He seems to have read unspoken clues from Vanya and he makes troubling, though not direct, insinuations toward Vanya by aiming his sexuality directly at him. He also seems to have made advances toward a young woman who lives next door, Nina (Amanda Axelrod), who is spending the summer visiting her aunt and uncle. Nina, it turns out, is an aspiring actress for whom Masha is an idol. So Nina has been hoping that at some point she might be able to meet Masha Hardwick, the famous actress, and has been watching the house through binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse. Upon his arrival at the house, Spike declares he is hot, and goes down to the pond to cool off. Nina uses Spike to wrangle an invitation up to the house, and comes to meet her idol.
There is one more character in the play, the housekeeper, Cassandra. Cassandra has an East European accent, possibly Russian, and she lives up to her namesake's abilities to predict the future. Every week, when she arrives for work at the farmhouse, she has some dire prediction to make regarding Vanya and Sonja. This morning she predicted that there would be coffee cups smashed and coffee spilled. Sonja admits that it has already happened. But Cassandra wrongly predicts that it was Vanya who did the smashing, and Sonja does not correct her. When Masha and Spike arrive, Masha assumes that the housekeeper is the live-in staff and directs her to make lunch. Thus, Masha and Cassandra are constantly clashing. In Act II, Cassandra brings a voodoo doll of Masha to the house and the darn thing actually works!
All of this Chekhovian drama comes to a head once the group returns to the house after attending a costume party nearby, "in the house where Dorothy Parker lived." There had been a big stink over costumes. Masha was going as Disney's Snow White, and as such wanted both Sonja and Vanya to come along to play two of the dwarfs, Grumpy and Dopey. Both refused. Vanya chose Doc instead, and Sonja insisted on playing the Evil Witch in her early incarnation, the beautiful woman who had that weird relationship with her mirror. She thus went to town to get her own costume, and it turns out to be a lovely blue gown with a tiara, just the costume to make Masha look bad. In fact, no one at the party remembered Disney's Snow White, so nobody knew who Masha was, and it was driving her nuts.
This makes for a very complex arrangement. So these characters are dealing with each other on multiple levels at once. Durang has complicated the issue almost to the boiling point, and the party (which actually takes place during the intermission) seems to be the catalyst that blows everything up.
Now comes the detonation: Masha, on the advice of her "very competent" assistant in New York, has decided to sell the house. It seems it is a cash drain, what with taxes and repairs and maintenance, not to mention the stipend she has been giving both Sonja and Vanya while they were seeing to the folks. All that has come to an end, and the house is just too much. She's going to sell it.
Rogers played Masha as a woman who is used to getting her way. She made Masha very self-centered, as someone who normally would simply sell the house and care not a whit about the consequences. Masha is far more concerned with the fact that Sonja shows her up at the party with a better costume, than she is worried about what selling the house will do to Vanya and Sonja. Her changes over the course of the play, then, cause her to become more concerned with her siblings, and her roots, than she had ever been previously. Brown, on the other hand, played Vanya as a milksop, a very quiet man who keeps his feelings to himself. Thus Vanya's tirade in Act II catches everyone, especially Spike, completely by surprise. Sonja, as portrayed by Nagel, also showed a major change: she finds that lots of people liked her at the party, much to her surprise, and she even receives a phone call from one of the men she met there, who could possibly turn into a beau. She also gets the chance to one-up her sister, who has made an art out of doing such to her. So, the dynamics of the family are in flux throughout the show. Masha even comes to like Cassandra, who becomes an ally when Spike turns out to be the cad we all thought he was.
What Durang has developed with this play is a complicated and superbly dynamic little firecracker that causes change in every one of his characters. You've got to pay attention or you'll definitely miss something. But this cast handled the multilayered sequences well, with an ensemble-like approach that operated well on all those levels so that we had no difficulty in following along. While this production and the one I saw previously are very different, I find I like this one better; I was able to relate to these characters much more easily than before and come to like them and care what happens to them. That is exactly the reaction any cast could ask for. This team of actors, while operating on a much quieter level than that other production, operated both individually and together in a major effort to keep the audience right with them, rather than running headlong to an end, like so many of Durang's plays seem to do. Director Mike McGee earns kudos for keeping this cast on track and making sure they don't leave us behind as they race down this slippery slope.
Forest Moon brings a complicated and difficult play to the stage and manages to rein it in to the point that we come to appreciate the Hardwicks and their changing family dynamic. What might have been a hard show to watch benefits from a firm hand from the director, who has wrestled this play into a winning comedy that left the audience cheering at the end.
Vanya and Sonja and Masha and Spike continues through Sunday, June 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.