Bucks County comes to Gretna: ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

By on July 3, 2018

American playwright Christopher Durang grew up in New Jersey, got an Ivy League education from Harvard and Yale, and then settled down in Bucks County. I always find it amusing to watch the response from theatregoers when a familiar place makes an appearance in a show, like Bucks County does in Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” which opened Thursday, June 28 to a cool and comfortable crowd assembled in the open-air Gretna Theatre. I envision those not familiar with the work wondering if what they just heard was part of the original writing or if it was perhaps improvised by the local players; I’ve been caught wondering this sometimes, too.

But, it is in rural Bucks County where “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” set the stage. Brother Vanya (Robert Meksin) and sister Sonia (Dori Legg) are starting their day in a familiar way. He, unhappy and gay, enjoys a cup of coffee and a book while looking out over the property to the lake below. She, adopted and bitter, has awoke on the wrong side of the bed, and in between cups of coffee flying about we learn the siblings have never had to make a life of their own.

Instead, they have taken care of their now dead parents and have been supported by their sister Masha (Carol Halstead), a successful actress who thinks her star shines a bit brighter than it actually does. Enter Cassandra (Jessica Johnson), a Jamaican-ish cleaning woman (Durang’s character notes call for someone of any ethnicity except white) with a penchant for predicting future events. She warns: Beware of Hootie Pie!

Semi-unexpectedly, the self-obsessed Masha arrives at the home. In tow with her grand entrance she has Spike (Max Falls), a sexy, young, aspiring actor/boy-toy who quickly catches the attention of Vanya, and a young neighbor girl, Nina (Grace Atherholt), after he strips down to his underwear to take a dip in the lake. Masha is home to be the celebrity appearance at an upscale costume party where she will be Snow White and her siblings will be sidekick Dwarves. This plan does not sit well with the others, especially Sonia, who ends up upstaging Masha at the party as “the Evil Queen from Snow White, as played by Maggie Smith on the way to the Oscars.”

In act two, all of the characters’ feelings come to the forefront. Despite her career, Masha feels she has failed. Sonia has yet to begin living her life. Vanya gets tea and tries to hold his sisters (and himself) together. Spike, being naïve, rude, and disrespectful draws the full, pent up ire of Vanya when a reading of his play is interrupted by Spike’s text messaging. The messages get the attention of Masha who learns they have been coming from her assistant, Hootie Pie, who previously suggested selling the family home and evidentially has been having a relationship with Spike, which he admits and then leaves the house.

In emotional turmoil and distress, the siblings try to collect themselves. Masha decides not to sell the house. Vanya and Sonia come to the realization they must earn some kind of income. And the show comes to a rather abrupt ending — allowing viewers to assume the characters’ futures — with the introduction of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”

“It was a good show, but I wouldn’t sit through it again,” was something I overheard while exiting the theatre during the premiere performance.

The cast of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

While the play has an abrupt and sometimes disjointed final scene, and an almost awkward opening, given the opportunity I will see this show any time it is performed. I simply love the personal dynamics, the intergenerational message, and the slight and seductive literary puns placed throughout the show.

All the players in the Gretna Theatre production had a firm grasp and understanding of their character, which is essential elemental to this play, especially Meksin.

It is vital that we see Vanya as an almost meek man caught between ages and afraid to allow others to experience his true self. He must be quiet, but educated and sharp. He has to be the leader hidden in a follower’s role all for the one moment when he snaps, gives Spike his comeuppance, and delivers the most powerful scene in the play. Vanya is overwhelmed and trapped, not only by the confines of his own life put on himself, but by the world — the entire universe!

Playing Vanya is no easy task, and Meksin nailed it with precision. Along with Meksin, Legg displayed great skill by playing a perfectly neurotic role seamlessly and Falls, who has the tough task of acting well to become a bad actor. Masha is considered the star of the show in most productions, and Halstead is simply wonderful.

Another shout out must go to costume designer Melanie Green who dressed characters in clothes that fit their personalities as much as their physical frames. Little points of detail, like an unassuming pair of baggy jeans, or even skin tight boxer briefs, can tell as much about a character as dialogue and this is the case with this show.

Gretna Theatre’s production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” was staged June 28 through July 1. Next at the open air theatre is the Broadway classic “She Loves Me,” running from July 12 through July 21. Buy tickets at gretnatheatre.org/the-season.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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