Encore Michigan

Open Book’s ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’ does Chekhov proud in a modern world

Review March 01, 2018 Encore Staff

TRENTON, Mich.–Playwright Christopher Durang has done a great service to Russian writer Anton Chekhov with his play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now being presented by Open Book Theatre in Trenton.

By presenting some of Chekhov’s themes in a more modern context, with a deliberate nod to the writer who gave us works such as The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull, he might have just driven some patrons over the past five years to check out the Russian plays in their original form.

In Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the story revolves around the connection and relationship among three middle-aged siblings–Vanya (Lindel Salow), Sonia (Connie Cowper), Masha (Wendy Katz Hiller), their lives, loves, lusts, wants, resentments and inter-dependence.

Masha has left the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania to become a famous actress. Vanya and Sonia, however, have remained in the house, and are now in their 50s. Never having really launched their own lives, they cared for their parents during a long decline of health. The brother and sister (Sonia was adopted and Vanya is gay) live and act somewhat like a sexless married couple with limited stimulation from the outside world. Masha comes back to visit from time to time, and has long paid the bills for the house and her siblings.

Masha’s latest visit includes Spike (Kyle Kelley), a vapid boy-toy some 25 years her junior as she tries to hold on, with her fingernails, to her potential to play a female romantic lead on screen; an effort that is clearly in vain both on screen and off. Into the story enters Cassandra–the clairvoyant, nutty, voo-doo practicing housekeeper, and Nina (Anna Doyle), the neighbor’s dewy niece who aspires to be an actress.

Indeed, all these characters and types are pulled from Chekhov’s plays. And some of the dialogue and plot turns as well. Sonia frets about the demise of the family cherry orchard. The modern angles are delightful. Sonia, the frumpy stay-at-home sister, manages to outshine Masha at a costume party by dressing up and mimicking Dame Maggie Smith as seen in her Oscar winning role in Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” a character who is a past-her-prime character actress with a gay husband. The dots are oh so connected. Durang is a taut story weaver.

Vanya and Sonia… is a marvelous script. Director Angie Kane Ferrante not only did a wonderful job of casting, but she delivers on the pacing needed to serve the funny and thoughtful dialogue. Mr. Salow and Ms. Cowper have seamless chemistry as the bump-on-a-log siblings trying to finally emerge from their family cocoon. These two actors lift any production they are in, and this is certainly no exception. Ms. Hiller carries off the Norma Desmond/Margo Channing Masha with slinky, sexy, yet sad, aplomb. Ms. Barrera manages nicely to keep her nutty Cassandra from slipping off a cliff into a character you can’t believe in.

Set designer Eric Niece, lighting designer Harley Miah and costume designer Cheryl Zemke create just the right atmosphere in Open Book’s wonderful performance space to let this story blossom for the audience.

A brief word about Open Book Theatre: If you have not visited this theater in Trenton, you are missing out. The modest exterior in a retail strip center is a front for one of the most consistently good theaters in Michigan in terms of the play selections it makes and productions. Producer and artistic director Krista Schafer Ewbank has skillfully matured this company after moving to this new space.

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