Playwright Christopher Durang’s most famous work, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, may be strongly influenced by the plays of 19th-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov. But it’s the contemporary elements he’s woven in -—including quasi-autobiographical details pulled from his life and that of friends like Yale Drama School classmate Sigourney Weaver — that gives its characters the energy, vitality and pathos needed to rise above stereotypes and give the play lasting comedic appeal.
Winner of the 2013 Tony Award for best play, Durang’s classic/contemporary mashup is on stage Aug. 11–28 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre in Milwaukee.
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is firmly rooted in the present, but several times within the play characters perform for the others,” says Marcella Kearns, director of the production. “Sometimes they even set up deliberate performance spaces. In that respect, though his musing about Chekhov provided inspiration for the play, Durang gives us much more. He actually sweeps us through a survey of Western theatre — eras, styles, acting techniques — with nods to the Greeks, Chekhov, acting for television versus the stage, and more. And that’s just in the first act.”
The play’s references to Chekhov are deliberate and overt. Vanya, Sonia and Masha’s names are taken from Chekhovian canon, as is the name of an additional character, Nina. The play also blends comedy with semi-tragic situations in a way similar to Chekhov works like The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard.
Durang says Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is not merely a parody of Chekhov, nor does one need to know the Russian writer’s plays to appreciate this contemporary one.
“I do like Chekhov’s plays and got to read them in my 20s and 30s,” says Durang. Now 66, Durang left New York City several years ago and moved to rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his now-husband John Augustine. The play is set in that same county and reflects an urban/rural tension.
“A lot of Chekhov’s characters are unhappy with their lives and regret the things they didn’t do, and those who live in the country seem to be unhappier than those who live in the city,” Durang says. “I thought, ‘What if I wrote a play that incorporated the themes of Chekhov and set the play in modern day?’”
Durang’s question became the genesis of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and drives its comedic trajectory.
The story is set at the home of Vanya (C. Michael Wright) and Sonia (Jenny Wanasek), siblings who live together in Bucks County. Unemployed, they have spent most of their adult lives caring for their now-dead parents, literature professors who loved Chekhov and named their children after Chekhovian characters. They currently survive thanks to their movie star sister Masha (Carrie Hitchcock) covering their living expenses.
The pair’s static environment ruptures when Masha returns home with her latest fling, boy toy Spike (JJ Phillips). Sonia’s insecurities and Masha’s competitive nature spark a series of arguments which Vanya must try to mediate, all while Spike flounces about the house distracting the trio with his buff body. It quickly becomes clear that Masha is intent on selling the family home, which would leave Vanya and Sonia destitute.
Durang says the characters in the play must deal with feeling left behind as times change, as well as with the struggles people face in their attempt to coexist and come to terms with their gains and losses.
While Durang acknowledges the play’s characters share some similarities to his own life, he says their differences that helped him maintain a necessary distance while writing the work.
“I realized that I was the age now of Vanya in the play and I am very much that character,” Durang says. “But it’s more of a what-if scenario. I feel very lucky that I was able to pursue a career in theater after college, but the Vanya character is what I think I would be if I didn’t get to follow my choices.”
The play is largely motivated by jealousy and sibling rivalry, another what-if scenario for Durang, an only child who nevertheless had to play peacemaker between warring parents.
One of the major drives in this play is the longing for connection,” Kearns says. “Storytelling — theater — is a most human way to connect, to transmit what one is experiencing and to seek understanding from others. It’s as old as human community. Naturally, that expresses itself in how the characters communicate with one another in this play. The siblings in the play (Vanya, Sonia and Masha) come from a very theatrical family, so they and those around them get specific about their styles and references. But audiences don’t need to be intimate with the work of Chekhov (or Aeschylus or Doug Ellin, for that matter) to enjoy them. The characters are using those styles as a medium to reach one another in the moment. They’re tools for the story at hand.”
Durang says he created Sonia as a composite of several women he’s known, and the narcissistic Masha is inspired by Weaver — or rather, by a similarly self-involved character she played in college. “I’m not saying that any part of Masha is based on Sigourney Weaver,” Durang explains, “but I thought she would have fun playing the role, and I was lucky to get her.
In addition to Weaver, the Broadway production featured David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen as Masha’s siblings and Billy Magnussen as Spike.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs Aug. 11-28 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. The Aug. 11 performance features a special LGBT Night Out promotion at 7:30 p.m., with a 25 percent discount on tickets using the code LGBT25. For tickets, call 414-291-7800 or visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com.
Editor’s Note: Michael Muckian’s interview with Christopher During was conducted in 2015 for a preview of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike that played at Madison’s Forward Theatre Company.