SALT LAKE CITY — The works of Anton Chekhov, one of the most prolific realist playwrights of the late 19th and early 20th century, are the inspiration for Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony Award winning play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Wasatch Theatre Company’s Utah premiere of this production does not disappoint as they highlight Durang’s humorous and witty script.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is unique in its heavy theatre references throughout the entire play. Although clever, this is not done subtlety. Chekhov and all four of his masterpiece plays, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard are all referenced frequently and blatantly. Durang structures his play to echo Chekhov’s themes and technique and includes many moments of enjoyment for theatre lovers who may be familiar with such things. The most impressive aspect of Durang’s script is that in spite of all this, it actually requires no familiarity with Chekhov or great knowledge of the theater to be understood and appreciated. This contemporary re-telling simply exposes Chekhov’s style to a modern audience while remaining easy to grasp and digest, contrary to Anton Chekhov’s actual works.
Set in a comfortable family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the present time, middle aged brother and sister, Vanya (played by Jeffrey Owen) and Sonia (played by Karrie Ann Ogilvie), contemplate their empty lives. After devoting their adulthood to taking care of their elderly parents, the two fail to accomplish much of anything after their parents pass. Their lives remain stagnant and without change until their sister, Masha (played by Cathy Ostler), and her much younger boyfriend, Spike (played by Allen Smith), come by for a visit. Masha, who left the family home years ago to become a successful actor and now supports Vanya and Sonia, announces that she has plans to sell the house, leaving the siblings comfortable lives upturned, though also sparking a reinvigoration and hope.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, directed by Brian Pilling, is well cast, with Ogilvie’s Sonia an absolute delight to watch. Ogilvie perfectly played her role of a bitter middle aged women who couldn’t be more unsatisfied with her life. She is sarcastic, sassy, and begrudgingly unnoticed all at the same time. I felt most of the humor in this production came from Oglivie. It was nice to see a distinct balance of sadness and hope come out in her character as well, and she truly made me excited for her character’s happiness. Ostler, as Masha, was equally talented as the arrogant and insecure sister. I loved seeing this dynamic depending on what situation she was in. Her fierce and bold attitude made the character really work for me. I also enjoyed Owen’s more laid back performance as Vanya, and he provided a nice contrast to the women in the play. His best moment, however, is when these roles are switched, and he gives a hysterical rant about how the past was better than the present. All three of these actors interact with each other nicely, creating realistic familial relationships. Smith as Spike, and Kathryn Wilkins as Cassandra, the psychic maid, were also skilled in their roles, aiding to the strong ensemble.
Michael Rideout created a professional looking set that perfectly represents the exterior morning room of the house where all of the action takes place. Complemented by Danny Dunn’s naturalistic lighting design, it was easy to feel that the scenes were real events. The costume design by Michael Nielson embodied the characters that the actors had created and made them feel realistic. I especially enjoyed the hilarious dwarf costumes that added to the Snow White theme when the family attends a costume party.
Pilling’s direction did not fail to bring out the humor in the script. I found myself laughing and amused consistently. There were moments into the second act that I felt dragged a bit, but I believe that this was mostly because of Durang’s script; Pilling adapted to these challenges fairly well in part by using quick and uncomplicated scene changes. The actors’ energy never faltered throughout either which helped to keep up the pacing.
Overall, Wasatch Theatre Company has a strong, comical production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. I am pleased that this company have created an impressive production of an award winning show that is fresh off of Broadway for our Utah community. Whether you are a theater buff or just looking for a fun night out, I would recommend this production. Readers should be aware, though, that Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is recommended for mature audiences, as it deals with some adult themes, including language and sexual references.