Trustus Theatre turns 30 this season, and I can’t decide if this should make them or me feel old. As a Gen Y-er, they’ve done pretty well for themselves. They have consistently pushed the envelope and made Columbia’s theatre audiences be a bit more daring. They’ve survived tough financial times and have managed to thrive and expand — both their physical space and their programming. It’s all enough to makes this Millennial/Gen Y gal wonder what the heck she’s been doing with her life all these years…but I don’t care to think on that.
I’ll think instead upon Trustus Theatre’s 30th season opener, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the Tony Award-winning farce (for Best Play) by Christopher Durang. I’m not the only one feeling old. The play opens with Vanya (Glenn Rawls) — a middle-aged man who’s out of the closet, but never manages to leave the house — and his equally reclusive celibate adopted sister, Sonia (Dewy Scott-Wiley). They’ve spent a great part of their adult lives taking care of their ailing Chekhov-loving parents (hence their names), and haven’t known what to do with themselves since they died. Their days pass slowly, punctuated with bickering and gazing out at the blue heron that frequents their pond from their sitting room. Their only visitor is their housekeeper, Cassandra (Ellen Rodillo-Fowler) who greets them daily with some terrifically plagiarized premonitions (“BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH!”), and has a hankering for voodoo.
Their drab existence is in sharp contrast to that of their glamorous (though not as glamorous as she used to be) movie star sister, Masha (Vicky Saye Henderson.) She’s been footing the bill for her siblings’ extended adolescence. When Masha pays an unexpected visit to her family home to attend an influential neighbor’s costume party with her 20-something half-wit boy toy Spike (Jimmy Wall), tensions rise and long-stifled grievances are aired. And when Spike starts flirting with a lovely young neighbor by the name of Nina (Stephanie Walden), you can probably guess there’s going to be trouble.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is funny and clever, but not great amounts of either. Director Jim O’Connor brings out the farcical elements of this play with plenty of campy moments and over-the-top embodiment of the characters by the actors, but it starts to feel tiresome by the end of the first act. The pacing feels slow. Durang’s script is rich with Chekhov (among other) references that are at first amusing, but once again, start to get old. Durang has been funnier than this, and he’s been more touching than this. The script just isn’t what it could be.
Thankfully, this production features some of Trustus’ best talents. Henderson’s Masha is just as narcissistic, overly-competitive, and selfish as she can be, but there are moments where one can’t help but feel genuine pity for her insecurity. Scott-Wiley and Rawls play off each other well as Sonia and Vanya. Sonia runs the gamut of human emotions from profound depression to hysteria, and does a spot-on Maggie Smith impression to get out of feeling awkward at a party. Vanya is definitely the gentler and more mild-mannered of the two, and is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the play. Spike and Nina are fairly one-dimensional characters, and I found them both to be sort of annoying. There isn’t much nuance to be found in either of these roles, but as an audience member, I wish Wall and Walden could have eked some out somehow. Rodillo-Fowler thrived in her absurd role and earned the most laughs with the fewest lines as Cassandra.
While the vast majority of this play is a nutty comedy of (really terrible) manners, there is a thoughtful theme about it all, as tacked-on as it may be to the end of the second act. Vanya begins to reminisce about the past, not resentfully as we’ve become accustomed to until now, but wistfully. His musings become a rant, and then almost a call to action best captured in this moment:
“Now, now there’s Twitter and e-mail and Facebook and cable and satellite, and the movies and tv shows are all worthless, and we don’t even watch the same worthless things together, it’s all separate. And our lives are… disconnected.”
It should feel hokey, but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s Rawls’ beautiful and heartfelt delivery. Perhaps it’s just how this speech stands in stark contrast to the sillier lighter fare of the rest of the show. But the catharsis that occurs as a result of this feels wonderfully genuine. And that’s where Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike surprised me.
If you’re in the mood for something ridiculous that features some of Columbia’s best comedic talent, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will certainly do. I look forward to seeing all that Trustus has to offer in this landmark season.
~ Jillian Owens