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Sunday, June 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Civic Theatre goofs on Chekhov in ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

Molly Allen, left, Thomas Heppler center, and Mary Starkey play Masha, Vanya and Sonia in the new Civic Theatre production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Molly Allen, left, Thomas Heppler center, and Mary Starkey play Masha, Vanya and Sonia in the new Civic Theatre production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The characters in Christopher Durang’s play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are either named after or inspired by figures in the canon of Anton Chekhov, and the plot synthesizes elements from a number of works by the Russian playwright: “The Seagull,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters” and, of course, “Uncle Vanya.”

But this isn’t some kind of postmodern send-up or cheap parody. “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” opening at Spokane Civic Theatre on Friday, is an original study of eccentrics who are forced to confront their own eccentricities. It’s also a pretty wild comedy.

The play is set in a Pennsylvania farmhouse where brother and sister Vanya (Thomas Heppler) and Sonia (Mary Starkey) oversee the property. Their serenity is disrupted by the appearance of their sister, Masha (Molly Allen), a fading actress whose fortune is keeping the family estate afloat. She’s brought along her much younger boyfriend, Spike (Jonah Taylor), who always seems to be in various states of undress.

“It’s absurdly comical,” said Heather McHenry-Kroetch, who directs the Civic production. “It’s a funny show, and it’s sometimes insightful.”

As Masha, Allen, best known as a morning DJ on 92.9 FM, is making her Civic debut, although she’s appeared on other local stages over the years. The last time Allen appeared on a local stage, it was in Ignite Community Theater’s “On Shaky Ground,” which she wrote.

“I haven’t done a huge part like this since 1998 at the old Interplayers,” Allen said. “I wanted to get back on stage. I raised my son and was helping raise my grandson and didn’t have time. And I really was so afraid of auditioning that I wrote my own play.

“Because I knew I would get the part,” she added with a laugh.

Allen says she was attracted to the part of Masha because of her outrageous nature and her “bigness.” The character, originated on Broadway by Sigourney Weaver, is obviously reminiscent of Norma Desmond, the fading silent film star memorably played by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”

“(Masha) didn’t take the route of being a serious movie star, and she’s disappointed with herself because she thinks she would have been wonderful,” Allen said. “I think she’s a mediocre actress at best – that’s my take on it. She’s very dramatic and makes a big impact, but the truth is, she’s probably lucky to be a movie star at all.”

“They’re all very human,” McHenry-Kroetch said of the play’s characters. “I have compassion for them. I like them, and I can see what they’re going for. They’re as close to being caricatures as possible without actually being one. I think (Durang) gives them just enough humanity.”

By the end of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which won the Tony for best play in 2013, each of the titular characters has been put through the wringer. The show retains its farcical tone, however – Durang employs a voodoo doll and an elaborate Snow White costume for comic effect – even as it examines its characters’ wasted lives.

“It exposes insecurities, it exposes lost time and missed opportunities,” Allen said. “At the end of it, it’s really about family. You can’t replace that. That’s where you come from.”

“I do think the show has a lot of heart and a lot of hope,” McHenry-Kroetch said. “I think hope is its overriding theme, and I like it for that.”

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