Theater Review: In ‘Vanya’ Durang, and TWTP, Gently Chase Chekhov Clouds Away

Vanya+Sonia+Masha+Spike“I like to say the play takes Chekhovian characters and themes and puts them in a blender,” playwright Christopher Durang wrote regarding his 2013 Best Play Tony Award® winner Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. “The play is funny, but has genuine emotion in it as well.”

That play is now making its enjoyable state premiere through the talented lens of Tennessee Women’s Theater Project, and it lives up to Durang’s assessment. Yes, it’s exposition-heavy at the start, set pieces for the characters sometimes ramble, and one wonders if that Tony was more for a brilliant career mining savagely funny theatrical gold from delicious absurdity – if you’re familiar with Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Betty’s Summer Vacation and other works, then you’ll know what I mean; if not, you should read the plays and see them whenever possible – but Vanya, where Durang’s touch is relatively gentle compared to his previous works, is certainly a delightful ride.

Yes, dear old Anton C. provides names and themes from such classics as Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard for grist in this play’s mill. While knowledge of those works makes Vanya more engaging, thankfully it’s not essential to get all the in-jokes: Durang’s playful poke at Chekhovian despair includes dialogue and situations at which everyone can laugh (and sometimes sigh in sympathy).

David Hyde Pierce (Frasier), part of the original New York cast and director of a production playing in Los Angeles through March 9, notes the “richly layered…odd mix of contemporary references with Chekhovian themes and language (that create) a uniquely Durangian world” in his introduction to the published version of Vanya:

“The opening is a good example of what I’m talking about. It takes place in the morning room of a country house – a very Chekhovian setting, though this happens to be in Pennsylvania:

SONIA I brought you coffee, dearest Vanya.

VANYA I have some.

SONIA Oh. But I bring you coffee every morning.

VANYA Well, yes, but you weren’t available.

SONIA Well, I was briefly in the bathroom, you couldn’t wait?

The first line could be straight from Chekhov, the last line definitely isn’t.”

Vanya (Lane Wright) and his adopted sister Sonia (Terry Occhiogrosso) have gone from youth to middle-age in the comfortable but fading farmhouse. He has become a resigned observer of a world beset as he sees it by largely unwelcome changes; she has grown sadder about her mundane lot in life and angrier that self-obsessed sister Masha (Holly Butler) – “I can’t help if I’m beautiful and intelligent and talented and successful, can I?” – has gone well beyond Pennsylvania as a world-famous actress.

VSMS-onstageWhen Masha returns home with the equally self-absorbed young actor Spike (James Rudolph) fireworks start to fly, first about a costume party where Masha wants her siblings to be dwarfs to her Snow White, and then over Masha’s plans to sell their family home (ah, there’s that Chekhov fellow again). But with a warning from the psychically-endowed Cassandra (Tamiko Robinson) – hello Greek mythology! – to be aware of “Hootie Pie” and the appearance of Masha-worshipping wanna-be actress Nina (Corinne Bupp) – hello Seagull! – the complications that ensue provide us with giggles on the road to pathos.

The whole ensemble is solid, but at Friday’s opening night performance the energy provided by Robinson’s Caribbean-flavored prediction-spouting voodoo follower really put logs on the fire. Butler, whose appearances on stage are typically moments to treasure, also commanded comedic attention as the narcissistic Masha (obviously modeled by Durang after Irina Arkadina in The Seagull).

Rudolph has plenty of fun with the young nincompoop he plays; Bupp is as shiny as a new penny and appropriately so. Occhiogrosso keeps her character from being too maudlin – it would be draining if her instrument only played a self-pitying note – while making the most of a comic twist that involves Dame Maggie Smith (to explain here would spoil the joke). And Wright gets to do more than observe – the rudeness of texting while others have the floor sparks a thought-provoking diatribe which will likely gain even more theatrical potency as the run continues.

The sound design by Producer Chris Clarke includes some lovely Beatles-infused piano playing – I was humming “Fool on the Hill” as I went to my car after the show – that dovetails with Durang’s script. Brittany Carlton’s multi-level set is quite good, as are the detailed set dressings and props placed by Natalie Ruffino. Christy Berryessa has got the right costume for each character and situation, and Tory Adcock lights it all with unobtrusive focused precision. Tying the bow on this theatrical gift is the sure-handed direction of TWTP Artistic Director Maryanna Clarke, who among other fine qualities has long had the knack for picking plays and actors that go together well.

Yes, the gray clouds created by Chekhov are certainly part of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, but Durang largely chases them away with his penchant for humorous absurdities. And with this show TWTP’s commitment to quality contemporary theater continues its welcome contributions to Nashville’s strong-as-ever arts scene.

Tennessee Women’s Theater Projects presents Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike directed by Maryanna Clarke through March 16 at the Z. Alexander Looby Theater (2301 Rosa L. Parks Blvd.). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on March 1, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 and 2:30 pm on March 2, 9 and 16. Tickets (Adults $15, Students and Seniors 60+ $12; All seats $10 on Thursday evenings; the first Thursday show – March 6 – designated as Pay What You Make and Hour Night; Groups of 10 or more, in any combination of ticket categories: Adults $12 each, Students & Seniors $10 each; for group sales call (615) 681-7220) and more information about TWTP are available online at www.twtp.org.

*Photo of (clockwise from left) Holly Butler as Masha, Terry Occhiogrosso as Sonia, James Rudolph as Spike and Lane Wright as Vanya and opening night production shot of (L to R) Wright, Butler, Rudolph and Occhiogrosso by Maryanna Clarke courtesy TWTP.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).