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Getting to Know "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"

Richard Anderson

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to Bucks County, PA, by way of Kansas City. And she did that by going to Center Stage in Baltimore.  Here’s her review of their current production, "Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike" which is up at Center Stage until May 25. 

The Rousuck Review: "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at Center Stage 

You don’t have to be a Chekhov scholar to enjoy Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony Award-winning play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” But you’ll find Center Stage’s production of this modern-day American mash-up all the funnier if do you have a passing familiarity with the Russian playwright’s Big Four – “Uncle Vanya,” “The Three Sisters,” “The Seagull” and “The Cherry Orchard.” 

Siblings, thwarted dreams, unfulfilled lives, unrequited love, remote country homes -- even 10 or 11 cherry trees -- all figure into “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia devoted their adulthoods to caring for their ailing parents in the family home. Now – as we learn in some deliberately heavy-handed exposition -- their parents have died. Life seems without purpose, especially to gloomy Sonia. When Vanya suggests she try antidepressants, she replies:

"If everyone took antidepressants, Chekhov would have had nothing to write about.”  It’s that kind of witty, self-aware play.

Suddenly Vanya and Sonia’s movie-star sister, Masha, returns home with three pieces of news: 1) She’s taking her brother and sister to a costume party tonight; 2) After five husbands, she’s keeping company with a 20-something Prince Charming; and 3) She’s selling the family house.

 “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” is a co-production with Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where it appeared immediately before Baltimore. But half of director Eric Rosen’s polished six-member cast is new.

Together, the cast blends into a comically dysfunctional Chekhovian-American family – the children of professors who dabbled in community theater and saddled their kids with the names of Chekhov characters. 

Baltimore favorite Bruce Randolph Nelson is one of the newcomers. He plays Vanya as a mild-mannered, accepting soul – until the very end when Vanya has a manic meltdown.  

Barbara Walsh – one of the holdovers from Kansas City – plays the much put-upon Sonia. But while Sonia starts out with serious self-esteem issues, Walsh lets us see Sonia come into her own. When Sonia takes a call from a man she met at the costume party, Walsh registers an entire gamut of emotions. We see Sonia cheer up and grow up at the same time.

Susan Rome, who plays Masha, is another Baltimorean new to the cast. Masha has supported herself, her siblings, and the family home by starring in a series of sexy slasher movies. Rome plays Masha as blithely self-deluded, self-aggrandizing, and blatantly unaware of anyone beyond herself. But Masha also undergoes a transformation.

The changes that Vanya and Sonia and Masha experience make a stronger impression at Center Stage than they did on Broadway. Christopher Durang has demonstrated in the past that he can write consummate spoofs. But there’s more here. The siblings are better people at the end of the play, and we’ve had a great time getting to know them.

The other characters include: Zachary Andrews’ dim, but well-muscled Prince Charming, who’s called Spike; Kerry Warren as a psychic housekeeper – it’s an over-the-top role that Warren nonetheless manages to overdo; and Emily Peterson, who is charming as Nina, a stage-struck young neighbor. Like her namesake in “The Seagull,” Nina tries out her acting skills by performing an experimental play, in this case written by Vanya.

So, okay, there are a lot of Chekhov references, but at Center Stage, there’s mostly a lot of just plain fun. All that – and not a single cherry tree was harmed in the making of this production.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.