By PAM HARBAUGH
There is a reason that Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” won multiple awards and became such a hot Broadway ticket three years ago. It’s a damn good show, that’s why. And that’s what you see in Melbourne Civic Theatre’s terrific production of this smart, funny and warm comedy.
What’s more, you leave feeling as if each member of the cast stole the show. Director Peg Girard fuses Mr. Durang’s deeply touching and very very funny writing with her actors’ individual charms, resulting in a resonating evening in the theater that brings laughs and tears. Indeed, Christina LaFortune, Alan Selby, Sally Contess, Jennifer Wolf, Anthony Detrano and Tori Terhune each give their personal best.
While Mr. Durang is known so well for his earlier more bizarre works from the 1980s, like “Laughing Wild,” “Actors Nightmare,” “Beyond Therapy” and the 1979 “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You,” in the past 40 years he has mellowed somewhat. The anxiety is still there, as is the contemporary humor and biting social commentary, but those now share space with a delicate tenderness. His characters have lived through the angst and are still grappling with it. But they have found solace in each other, in family, in nature and even the sturdy permanence of great art.
Since its 2013 debut on Broadway, “Vanya and Sonia…” has become the most often produced play in theaters around the country. In it, siblings Sonia and Vanya are in their 50s, at least, living in their childhood home. They have spent their productive years taking care of their parents, both of whom died from dementia. Their sister Masha is a famous actress and pays all the bills. But the real stabilizing force in their lives is that home, a beautiful spot in the genteel and now expensive area of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
The morning starts off with cups of coffee and a sense of melancholy. Vanya (a most tender Mr. Selby) worries about the ducks. Sonia (Ms. LaFortune at her very best) looks at the cherry trees and sighs that she has missed out on life. And, of course, they anticipate Masha’s arrival. And in case you’re not of the “Chekhov body,” this play has repeated references to the 19th century Russian playwright of comedies imbued with longing and angst and threat of losing the family home. What’s more, Mr. Durang’s language, often very formal sounding here, reflects that in Chekhovian comedy.
But then there’s the psychic housekeeper, Cassandra (a deliciously uninhibited Ms. Wolf), who warns Vanya and Sonia to “Beware of Hootie Pie.” Like any good Chekhovian dramatic device, Hootie Pie remains offstage throughout. Masha (an exquisitely affected Sally Contess) finally arrives in all her histrionic need for attention. She brings with her a boy toy named “Spike” (a vamping and preening Mr. Detrano) who just missed out being cast in HBO’s “Entourage 2.” The chemical agent stirring the deeper stuff up from the bottom is Nina (a naively delightful Ms. Terhune), a sweet young thing filled with with love and tenderness toward all.
While the antics and witty language are fodder for the cast’s talents, the deeper parts resonate while…yes….still entertaining the audience. Ms. Girard wisely gets this. She brings out layered portrayals of complex characters who are very real. In fact, the production holds the audience, who become so rapt with the characters that they elicit audible reactions and spontaneous applause.
Especially riveting is Ms. Lafortune’s heart aching, poignant telephone scene where her anxiety disorder threatens to derail possible happiness. We relate because we have been there. The humanity in that scene is unforgettable. And then there’s Mr. Selby’s terrific monologue in which he decries how society has sacrificed the human touch in its inexorable race toward the future. (Mr. Selby also has designed the set which so beautifully depicts the family home.)
This is such a wonderful production of a wonderful play. It’s contemporary, with characters and plot you can relate to. It shows off Ms. Girard’s gifts as well as those of her fine cast and crew. Do.Not.Miss.This. It will win your heart, tickle your funny bone and stimulate your intellect.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through Sept. 11 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. It performs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $26 and $28. Handling fees may apply. Call 321-723-6935 visit MyMCT.org or click onto their ad. Please tell MCT you read this in Brevard Culture.