Civic Theatre’s "Vanya" finds humor in sibling rivalry and Chekhov
Siblings always have issues.
Sometimes the older they get the testier they become, especially when their paths diverge.
This idea became the inspiration for Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a comedy about sibling resentments that takes some inspiration from Russian short-story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov.
Cassie Mann, who is directing a production of Vanya for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, March 14-17, said she fell in love with the play when she read it.
“It’s such a well-constructed comedy, and I was looking for a comedy. It’s smart, it’s nuanced, but also has room for broad comedy and it kind of has something for everybody,” she said. “And I think in the characters, in particular, there’s a range of ages and genders, but several are in my age range and it really spoke to me.”
Vanya, Sonia, and Masha are the names of three Chekhov characters, two from Uncle Vanya and one from Three Sisters. They are the squabbling siblings, named by their theater-loving parents. Vanya and Sonia are living together in the old family home in rural Bucks County, Pa. Adopted daughter Sonia is nursing resentments about a wasted life, while Vanya is a bit more reticent and laid back until he isn’t. While Vanya and Sonia took care of their now-deceased parents, sister Masha was becoming a famous movie star and supporting her parents and siblings. She returns to Pennsylvania with the intention of selling the family home and cherry orchard (another Chekhov allusion, this time to The Cherry Orchard). Her once thriving Hollywood career has been in decline.
“If you’re not familiar with Chekhov, the names are kind of funny and it has that sort of comic appeal,” said Mann. “It seems like they are stuck and unable to move and it’s sort of timeless, and it’s those themes from Chekhov that [Durang] brings into it. I think for those who are familiar with Chekhov, it’s sort of an in-joke, here and there, but you don’t have to have any familiarity with Chekhov in order to fully enjoy the play. That’s what I like about it.”
Mann said Durang’s play, like Chekhov’s plays, is a comedy but with a melancholy undertone.
“A lot of people play Chekhov way too seriously and they don’t mine the comedy,” she said. “I think Christopher Durang saw the comedy in Chekhov and the melancholy’s in there, too. But, too many times they played up the drama and destroyed the comedy. Durang does a great job bringing those together from Chekhov.”
Of course, Spike is not a Russian name. Spike is Masha’s latest muscular boy toy. Mann said Durang just liked throwing that name into the title because it was so non-Chekhovian. And, so is Spike.
“He is very different from the rest of the characters, and he shakes things up, and his name is part of the plot, his being so other and everyone else having to deal with him.”
Thom Johnson plays Vanya. Vanya hasn’t worked since he and Sonia have cared for their parents, who developed Alzheimer’s disease.
“When their parents die, they just stay because that was the focus of their lives,” Johnson said. “They never got anything else to do after that, so they are just hanging in there, and then Masha shakes up their world in a weekend. Also, shaking up their weekend is their psychic housekeeper [Cassandra] who has premonitions and second sight and they come to accept her although they don’t always believe her.”
Near the end of the play, Vanya delivers a rant about a world changing too rapidly around him.
“One of the major challenges is that near the end is a four-page monologue that Vanya has that I have to stuff into my brain somehow with no one there to help you if you go off track,” Johnson said.
He said the long rant will appeal to older people who look back on what used to be and miss the things of the past. Johnson said he sees a lot of himself in Vanya.
“The character of Vanya himself if not so far removed from me. He’s laid back, not really challenging anybody or anything and comfortable pretty much with his life, while Sonia mourns that she’s never been able to do anything,” Johnson said. “Vanya is very content for life to be the way it is and go along with it and support his sister. In the end, he realizes he has to move on, he has to get a job and not leave it all to Masha to support them in their lifestyle.”
Denyse Clayton takes on the flamboyant role of Masha, the sister who got away and, she said, Masha is very different from herself.
“Masha is the actress, the one who left and, at first blush, you think she’s the one who’s left them all and gone away and is full of herself, had it not been for the fact that she was working and the fact that she kind of supported her parents and her brother and sister throughout the years,” Clayton said.
“Masha is a lot of fun for me because she is a departure from me. Masha is free-spirited, married five times. In my life, I’ve been married for 31 years and have four children.”
Masha longed to be a serious actress but won fame as the lead in a film about a serial killer that led to five sequels.
“She mourns the fact that there was a director who wanted to cast her as her namesake in Three Sisters and she didn’t do it,” Clayton said.
Clayton said it’s fun playing a movie star “with a 24-year-old stud with muscles out to here” as a boy toy.
The roles of Vanya and Masha were performed on Broadway by David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver.
Vanya is secretly writing a play about ecology and climate change inspired by a play within a play in Chekhov’s The Seagull. Mann said they are playing up this theme is Durang’s play and working with the Huron River Watershed Council to bring awareness to protecting and restoring the Huron River.
In addition to Johnson and Clayton, the cast includes Ellen Finch as Sonia, John Harrison as Spike, Ann Stoner as Cassandra and Aliahna Porter as Nina, a young neighbor who stirs things up between Masha and Spike.
Vanya includes sexual and sibling competition and posturing, jealousy, a costume party, voodoo, and laughs. Mann said she wants audiences to enjoy themselves, first and foremost.
“I want them to have a good time,” she said. “I think it’s a time to think about how they treat or don’t treat their siblings and other family. It’s never too late to reconnect with people.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” will be presented at 7:30 pm on Thursday, March 14, 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, March 15 and 16, and 2 pm on Sunday, March 17, at the Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave., on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets and information, visit a2ct.org or call 734-971-2228. Tickets are also available at the door beginning 45 minutes before each performance.