Near the end of Christopher Durang’s play “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” one of its titular characters, named after a famous creation of Anton Chekhov, unspools a lengthy monologue about the good ol’ days. Things were a lot better half a century ago, Vanya admits. Humans were more connected. Technology hadn’t become a mass distraction. Popular culture was admittedly simplistic, but it was more wholesome.
“The ’50s were idiotic,” Vanya says, “but I miss them.”
The speech is certainly Chekhovian in its examination of ennui as substance. It might also sound like an elaborate, long-winded way of an old man saying, “Get off my lawn, kids!” But it turns out to be more complicated than it appears, and like all of Chekhov’s work, it toys with our allegiances: One moment we’re agreeing with Vanya, and the next we feel he’s merely grousing.
“Vanya and Sonia …,” now running in the Civic’s studio theater, is loaded with allusions to Chekhov. There’s an old family estate next to a cherry orchard (if you consider a cluster of 10 cherry trees an orchard). Though there’s no seagull, a blue heron makes a notable appearance in both the first and final act.
And then there are characters’ names, which make it clear that Durang is riffing on the Russian master’s work. The show is set in a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania (the set is nicely designed by Matthew Egan), presided over by Vanya (Thomas Heppler) and his adopted sister Sonia (Mary Starkey). They’ve inherited it from their parents, who are long dead, and their only real company is their eccentric, possibly psychic housekeeper Cassandra (Joni Elizabeth).
Neither Vanya nor Sonia have jobs, but their sister Masha (Molly Allen), a successful film actress, pays all the bills. When Masha suddenly arrives at the house with her vain, 20-something boyfriend Spike (Jonah Taylor) in tow, she announces plans to finally sell the property, which incenses her layabout siblings to no end.
Tensions in the house reach a boiling point following another unexpected appearance, this time from a young aspiring actress named Nina (Brooklyn Robinson). Her presence inflames Masha’s jealousy, never mind that Spike is too dumb to realize Nina is probably attracted to him and Masha is threatened.
Although Chekhov wrote some comedies, his work tended toward the introspective and existential. Durang’s script, meanwhile, is big and broad, and the Civic’s actors get to tear into their purple dialogue with a knife and fork. This is the kind of show that earnestly employs a voodoo doll and dresses its characters in goofy Snow White costumes as a means of counteracting its more emotionally explosive moments.
But “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” never quite tips over into caricature – although it’s not afraid to teeter on the precipice – which is something of a surprise considering how brazenly wacky a lot of it is. The Civic production is directed with precision by Heather McHenry-Kroetch, and she and her actors navigate Durang’s tricky material with ease.
Looking past the play’s laugh lines – and this is a consistently funny show, nimbly performed by the Civic’s talented cast – “Vanya and Sonia” is really a story of regret, about people reluctantly confronting the mistakes they’ve made.
Vanya has never been in a serious relationship, likely because he’s never come to terms with his own sexuality. Sonia is similarly lovelorn, and flirtations with a gentleman caller make her realize how lonely she truly is. Masha might be well off, but she’s never found the artistic respect she craves. The only characters who seem to have a sunny outlook on life are the ones who haven’t yet been buffeted by enough disappointments.
By the time we get to Vanya’s climactic monologue, we don’t necessarily understand Durang’s characters completely. I don’t think they truly understand themselves. But what we have come to understand is the sadness they live with, and we leave the theater with a glimmer of hope that things can get better. It’s very funny, but it’s hardly flimsy.
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