by Maria Edmundson, Directing Assistant
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang is one of the most produced plays across the country right now and is one of several Chekhov-related productions in the area this season. Over the past year, DC has seen two Chekhov adaptations by Aaron Posner, the director of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and a production of Annie Baker's new translation of Uncle Vanya. We are having a Chekhov moment, but that is not altogether surprising. Chekhov understands the tensions of modern life; he taps into enduring themes of the frustration and boredom with the quotidian, the longing for more or what might have been, and the beauty and dignity of that everyday life, too. In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang interweaves his own hilarious sense of the absurd with Chekhovian frustrations and longings.
His play is the story of a seismic weekend for three adult siblings, Vanya, Sonia and Masha. (Their parents were community theater enthusiasts who named them after Chekhov characters.) Masha is a successful, mega-wealthy movie star and Vanya and Sonia took care of their ailing parents for 15 years in their childhood home. They are joined in the play by Nina, an effervescent aspiring actress/neighbor; Cassandra, a house keeper with psychic powers and Spike, Masha's very young, very studly boyfriend. The play is, of course, a comedy.
At the same time, this is a story of three siblings who need each other and whose relationships—both with themselves and with each other—are on the brink of radical change. Exploring the tender underbelly of the play has been at the heart of our process. Aaron began rehearsals by challenging the company to “find the most love.”
So what does it mean to find the most love? It does not mean that the characters never fight (they do) or that they’re always kind (they aren’t.) The love plays beside and beneath the action of the play. It results from trying to be kind, resisting defeat, embracing optimism, and finding amazement in every possible moment. Sometimes the characters efforts succeed, but not always. In the second act, Masha and Sonia have a big fight after returning from a costume party. It covers everything from responsibility for their parents to who wore the better costume. The fight affords many opportunities for them to be brutal with each other; they unload baggage that has been building up for years. This scene could exist in a serious drama and be devastating. However, if the sisters allow themselves to be brutal with each other and the love goes out of the fight, we step outside the world of a comedy and the audience turns against the characters. As Aaron says, “it breaks the play.”
In this "most love" version of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the audience gets to watch the characters try hard to be their best selves and fail with hilarious results. However, we also see them succeed, change and grow. Our goal is that by telling the fullest, most human story, the hope of the play will spill out and resonate through the audience.
(Photo: Sherri L. Edelen, Grace Gonglewski and Eric Hissom in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.)