Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

by John Stoltenberg

There is no humor in one’s own unhappiness. To be lonely and disappointed in life is not to be amused. To feel empty and over the hill is not to be tickled. Yet when we laugh at the woes and sorrows of the middle-age siblings Vanya, Sonia, and Masha—as laugh we do, in gasps and gales, for more than two hours—something curiously healing happens. We are in on jokes that could be on ourselves except they’re not. They’re jokes on the artfully observed characters in Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, just opened in the fishbowl Fichandler at Arena Stage. Somehow the play turns melancholy to hilarity in a way that mitigates our own malaise and self-pity.

The production is directed by Aaron Posner, whom I interviewed when his own Chekhov-ish comedy Life Sucks played recently at Theater J. He has got to be theater’s smartest and most intuitive expert in the trending practice of lifting from Chekhov and making it seem like now. At the Arena Stage opening night reception—after Artistic Director Molly Smith praised Posner from the podium for his masterful direction of a difficult-to-stage play, one that (as she rightly pointed out) would have been easy to get wrong—I caught up with him to chat.

When I mentioned what I noted was the production’s healing humor, Posner’s face lit up animatedly in agreement. Then on the spot he shared with me insights about how for that elusive humor to happen, actors must go deep into the pain of their characters’ moments (I’m paraphrasing here), and he told me how that process had come to pass recently during rehearsal for particular performances. Indeed, the entire cast is extraordinary—they each deliver multiple show-stopping, own-the-stage solos, as if connected all the while more like close-knit family than a professional acting ensemble. Whatever depths Posner and the cast dug down to during rehearsal, the performances that result are marvelous to behold.

Durang’s script is currently much produced across the land, and it’s no wonder why—Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a funny, funny play with an astonishingly huge heart. It’s set in the present in a well-kept house in the country that is home to sister and brother Sonia (Sherri L. Edelen) and Vanya (Eric Hissom) and owned by their sister Masha (Grace Gonglewski), a semifamous film actress who arrives in Act One. The whole setup is a clever mash-up of bits and pieces from Chekhov. As Vanya explains, their parents, both professors, named the three kids after characters in Chekhov. The text is littered with other references to Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, and The Seagull as well. No prior knowledge of these precursors is required to enjoy the goings-on, but for dramatic-lit insiders, there are goo-gobs of winking nods.

Vanya and Sonia’s clairvoyant housekeeper Cassandra comes by (in Jessica Frances Duke’s riotous performance, she actually breezes in like a dervish).  Masha shows up with her boytoy Spike (a buff bundle of randy energy in Jefferson Farber’s eye-candy performance). On a near-skinny-dip in the pool, Spike’s roving eye espies the beautiful next-door ingenue Nina (all sweetness and hope in Rachel Esther Tate’s lovely performance). And more hilarity ensues.

Yet an undercurrent of hurt and heartache flows steadily just beneath the play’s laugh-out-loud surface. It’s there from the beginning, in the lonely lamentations of frumpy Sonia (performed so lovingly by Edelen we fall in love with her—and we cheer for her when romance might be at hand). It’s there in the suppressed, unfulfilled affect of the gay brother Vanya (played with compelling quietude by Hissom—until he breaks out in a scathing rant in Act Two). It’s there in the mournfulness with which Masha (the stylish and statuesque Gonglewski) reflects on her five failed marriages, her fear of aging,  her likely loss of Spike to a younger woman. But not until the very end—a touching, deeply affecting, and wholly unexpected reconciliation scene—does that undercurrent suddenly become an emotional tidal wave. And it immerses us and buoys us and drenches us in healing empathy.