Belfry Theatre’s Chekhov blend goes down smoothly

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike 

By Christopheer Durang

Directed by Michael Shamata 

The Belfry Theatre

April 14 – May 17, 2015 

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Playwright Christopher Durang admits there are echoes of Chekov in his 2013 Tony Award-winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He likes to say he’s taken Chekhov characters and scenes and “put them into a blender.” That’s a pretty fair description.

The setting for the play is rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (Durang and his long-time partner John Augustine moved to Bucks County several years ago, and Durang says it was this move to the country that turned his mind toward Chekov.)

In the play, Vanya, Sonia and Masha are 50-something siblings whose amateur thespian parents named them after Chekov characters. Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia stayed home to nurse their parents through dementia and, after their deaths, stayed on at the family farm (think Uncle Vanya). Masha left home and became a B-grade movie star (think of a technologically-updated Arkadina in The Seagull). Masha’s money supports the farm, as well as Sonia and Vanya, who don’t have jobs.

As the play opens, Masha (played with unabashed self-absorption by Brenda Robbins) has come home to tell her siblings that she has decided to sell the house. As in The Cherry Orchard, this threatened loss of the family estate provides the core conflict and theme of the play. In this production, the importance of the home is established by a handsome set designed by Cory Sincennes, who earned a degree in Architectural Studies from Carleton University before studying design at Ryerson Theatre School. The peace of the countryside is effectively evoked by lighting designer Brian Kenney, whose warm red dawns and sunsets flood through the expansive leaded glass window upstage.

Another Chekhovian theme, unrequited love, plagues the title characters. Sonia (played by Vancouver actress Deborah Williams) suffers from a life-long yearning for Vanya (played by lauded Canadian actor R. H. Thomson) who has no interest in her “that way” because he is gay (but apparently not in a relationship). Masha, married and divorced five times, is in a relationship with a much younger “boy-toy,” Spike (played by Lee Majdoub), who is fond of disrobing down to his underwear in public and flaunting his well-muscled body, much to the discomfort of both Masha and Vanya.

As in Chekhov, there is also a pervasive sense of missed opportunity and loss, and of the approaching end of an era. At one point, Vanya walks into the room and finds both Sonia and Masha sobbing loudly, Sonia because she feels she’s never lived, and Masha because she feels she’s lived but lost.

It is left to Vanya to voice misgivings about the perceived end of an era, which he does in a 10-minute Baby Boomer rant that bemoans the loss of everything from postage stamps that had to be licked to the passing of such 1950s “shared experiences” as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Bishop Sheen’s TV sermons. This long rant demanded the complete unravelling of Vanya’s carefully buttoned-down control. Thomson, who had just days earlier won a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement, was, despite that recognition, not quite up to the task on opening night. His choked delivery seemed too reservedly Canadian for this quintessentially American tirade.

There is also, as in Chekov’s plays, a certain genre confusion in this play. Chekhov insisted he was writing comedies, but his plays were produced as tragedies, or, at least, as lugubrious drama. Durang’s play is billed as a comedy, and no one would mistake it for a tragedy—Williams’ transformative impersonation of Maggie Smith alone is a send-up worth the price of admission—but this play pushes well beyond comedy into farce. Any doubt is dispelled by Cassandra, the housekeeper (played with appropriate exaggeration by Carmela Sison in her Belfry debut), who, like her mythological name-sake, receives presentiments of the future; she also resorts to voodoo at crucial moments. The only non-farcical character is Nina (played with sweet sincerity by Yoshie Bancroft), a modern-day version of the young, unspoiled Nina in The Seagull.

You don’t have to know Chekov to enjoy this play, but, if you do, it’ll add an extra layer of texture to your pleasure. When Sonia insists she’s a “wild turkey” and your mind flies to The Seagull, your laugh will broaden into a guffaw.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.