Thursday, July 10, 2014

Trouble in Chekhovania: A Review

 Once upon a time there was a man whose parents had named Douglas Fir Tree. His sister was Mary Christmas Tree. Carolyn Clay, long-time drama critic for the Boston Phoenix, told me this. Clay and Tree were engaged. If you made this up, would anyone believe you?

 So given what parents in the so-called real world are willing to do to their children, imagine--as playwright Christopher Durang did—that two American parents who are also college professors name their three children after characters in famous plays by Anton Chekhov. The result for Durang eventually was the 2012 comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.

 Additional inspiration came when Durang noticed that his home in the eastern Pennsylvania countryside resembled the bucolic settings of several Chekhov plays in which aging characters expressed regrets for wasted lives. Durang, whose first stage hit was Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You in 1981, was himself entering his 60s.

 Durang has written parodies and farces (including an unproduced screenplay with my favorite of his titles: The Nun Who Shot Liberty Valance.) This is different. It riffs on Chekhov but also stands alone as a contemporary take on perennial themes of regret and hope, disappointment and new beginnings, in Durang’s unique off-center comic voice.

 Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies, but he usually neglected to include a happy ending. Durang doesn’t make that mistake. In 2013 Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike became Durang’s first Tony Award winner.

 The plays opens with Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia, both in their 50s, watching for the blue heron that visits the pond outside their farm house in a Philadelphia suburb on a late summer morning. They’ve spent 15 years taking care of their dying parents, and fear their own lives are over.

 Their stasis is stirred first by their prophetic housekeeper Cassandra, whose every sentence seems to begin with “Beware!” Their sister Masha arrives—she is a rich and famous Hollywood actress (Sexy Killer, Sexy Killer 2 etc.)-- accompanied by Spike, her much younger boyfriend and aspiring actor (a finalist for a role in the reality series Entourage 2.)

 Masha organizes them all to attend a costume party (she’ll be Snow White, her siblings will be the dwarfs), and incidentally has decided to sell the house. She’s been paying the mortgage (and to support her siblings), but she’s also aging and her career isn’t what it was.

 Meanwhile Spike finds Nina, an even younger aspiring actor visiting nearby relatives. She is thrilled to meet the immediately jealous Masha, and decides to call Vanya uncle. Though several offstage characters are important in causing what ensues, the focus is on these six as they deal with the consequences of the past, the illusions of the present and the possibilities of the future.

 The Redwood Curtain production is superbly cast. Though there are elements of caricature, these characters become individuals with their own minds and emotions, so the actors are required to inhabit and express their individuality.

 Gloria Montgomery confidently navigates Masha’s alternating flashes of ego and affection, anxiety and awareness. She also credibly works towards one of those sudden moments of emotional practicality that women seem to access while men remain swamped in clueless confusion.

 Christina Jioras creates a believable and sympathetic Sonia as she breaks out of her gloom and doubts, yet can’t believe her luck. Nadia Adame brings a sharp comic energy to the household as the psychic Cassandra, who mixes the exotic and the everyday with a feather duster that doubles as a ritual instrument, and a surprisingly effective voodoo doll.

 In their important supporting roles, Geo Alva plays Spike’s casual narcissism with a California flavor while Mira Eagle embodies Nina’s youthful spirit as she innocently discovers wonders of the past.

 Masha drives the action and Sonia makes the most transformative move, but the soul of the story is Vanya. Raymond Waldo (who has played Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya) performs brilliantly as this gentle man who misses the past and worries about the future.  Vanya’s angry, rambling monologue, accompanied by aimless wandering around the stage, seldom rises above cliche but still comically conveys his heartfelt fear of a dangerously thoughtless present.

 Even with such strong characters, some of the best moments are interactions. Jioras and Montgomery perform an amazingly realistic crying scene that is simultaneously heartrending and hilarious. The last scene strains for a feel-good finish but gets there anyway.

There are lots of laughs along the way. Most of the time Durang is so unpredictable that it seems the play is being written before your eyes.

 Director Jyl Hewston ensures her actors play the human nuances as well as the comic set pieces. Scenic and sound design are by Liz Uhazy, lighting by Telfer Reynolds and costumes by Jenneveve Hood. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is onstage at Redwood Curtain Thursdays-Saturdays through July 26. 443-7688,

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