Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike

Theatre Huntsville is running the Christopher Durang play, Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike, through this Saturday at the VBC Playhouse.  This is a great script, with which TH did good things, and is worth the visit to the VBC before it closes.

This is possibly the most accessible of Durang’s scripts, and it won the Tony Award in 2013.  Given that most of his scripts are relegated to college theatre departments (because audience sizes are less financially critical there), this is a rare opportunity to catch Durang out in public.  Vanya is an incredibly well-written script, without the truly off-the-wall antics for which Durang is famous. The general plot revolves around a pair of middle-aged siblings, “Vanya” and “Sonia”, who never married, never left home, and never “lived life”.  Their quiet days are interrupted by the visit of their sister “Sasha”, who is a famous Hollywood movie star (and the one paying the bills), arriving with her latest boy-toy, “Spike”.  Aside from the sexual tension around Spike’s presence, the drama revolves around Sasha’s desire to sell the house out from under her siblings, which would toss Vanya and Sonia into the street.  Also included are “Cassandra”, the voodoo-practicing, fortune-telling maid; and “Nina”, the young neighbor who is a HUGE fan of Masha, and won’t go away.  Stir in some high-brow allusions to Chekhov characters, and some wonderful Durang dialogue, and it’s a fun, fascinating couple of hours.

It is also an incredibly difficult script, with some deep character development that is hiding in the sub-texts, and a style of comedy that really needs to be underplayed to be most successful.  Make no mistake about it, this is a hard script to get right, and it requires a skilled director.  Unfortunately, Tara Ferguson doesn’t quite have the experience to pull this show off to its full potential.  Masha really needs to breeze in at the top of the show with all the disdain for “little people” of the stereotypical starlet of the Golden Age of Hollywood.  She needs to keep wearing that false mask until the end when she finally breaks down and we see the real Masha, the sister.  Cassandra could have been more of a showman.  One could easily dismiss this gypsy fortune-teller as a crackpot, except that her fortunes come true, so there has to be “something” there.  A little..something…to mark off when she’s seeing a vision, and when she’s just being the wise-cracking maid, would have heightened the scenes a bit.  Nina needs to be acted a bit older.  Obviously, one of the reasons Nina exists in the play is to be a threat to Masha for Spike’s attention, but the Nina in this play comes across like she’s about eight years old–annoying as a fan, but no real threat as a competitor.  One also wonders a bit why Vanya takes such a liking to her.  All that aside, for a relatively inexperienced director, Ferguson turned out a pretty darn good show.  The other characters–Vanya, Sonia, and Spike, are spot-on; there are moments of brilliance in the staging and blocking; and the overall pacing of the show is right where it needs to be.  This is one of those plays where the rhythm is VERY important in establishing the mood.  The director needs to find those spots where things can go slow, and the spots where the pace has to pick up, and Ferguson pretty much hits that on the money.  I’m sure this was a huge learning experience for her, and we look forward to her continued growth in the craft.

Everyone in the cast gave this full effort, and has great chemistry together.  Christopher Kelly Carter and Tanja Lewis Miller, as the brother and sister, “Vanya” and “Sonia”, are brilliant, and a perfect pair.  They argue, they laugh, they love, they stare out over the pond wondering if the blue heron will return.  One can totally believe that these two have spent fifty years under the same roof, and they each shine in their special moments.  Gena Rawdon’s performance as their movie-star sister, “Masha” is a good example of both the difference between realism and dramatic realism, and the difference between the actor and the director.  Rawdon’s “Masha” is very believable, real, and entertaining.  She is absolutely in-the-moment every second, providing a great character, who honestly responds to the world around her.  In other words, she has wonderfully done her job as an actor.  That the “Masha” we see isn’t the best choice for this show, as discussed above, is not really her fault.  Josh Phillips, as the over-sexed boy-toy, “Spike”, is totally perfect.  The energy level onstage jacks up just by his entrances.  Alecea Kendall, as the neighbor, “Nina” does a fine job supporting the production, and one hopes she returns to the stage soon.  Brianna Bond, as the wise-cracking maid, “Cassandra”, brings a great personality and energy to the stage.

The technical elements nicely support the production.  The scene design, by Paul Ferguson, is perfect for this production, with some very nice extra touches.  The set isn’t the most glamorous, complicated, or glitzy, but it is exactly what this production needed.  The costumes, by Staci Price, are all very well done, and they clearly had a lot of fun with the outfits for the costume party.  The lighting, by Cynthia Meyer, and the sound, by Sabian Bush, were not called on to do much, but did execute exactly what was needed for this generally easy technical production.  It was great to have a show in the Playhouse willing to trust its actors to project, rather than slapping a mic on everyone.

Overall,  Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike is a very enjoyable show.  This is a deceptively difficult script, but a good one, and Theatre Huntsville took it uphill.  The show runs through this Saturday, 21 January, with evening shows every night, and a matinee on the last day.  Ticket information and showtimes can be found at this link.

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