By Rick Busiglio
May 7, 2016
The Chester Theatre Group premiered its superior production of the Tony Award winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike this past weekend. Once again, we have witnessed a community theater presentation that blurs the line between professional and community 'non-pros.' (Above: L-R: J M Hogan, Leslie Gayle Williams, Jackie Jacobi, Lauri MacMillan, Tasha R Williams. Seated: Michael King)
This production, directed by Chase Newhart, could easily be transferred to most professional theaters on either side of the Hudson. First, it is a wonderful satire from Montclair native Christpher Durang that won the 'Best Play' Tony in 2013. Second, Newhart has selected a cast of community theatre allstars. From the cast of his recent Glengarry Glen Ross at the Chatham Playhouse he has master actor Michael King as Vanya; for the role of Sonia, he has Lauri MacMillan, who excelled in CTG's When We Were Married and the Barn Theatre's God of Carnage...plus everything else she has done. MacMillan can do it all...with bags of charm. The role of Masha is beautifully played by a newcomer to the intimate Black River Playhouse Leslie Gayle Williams. She just finished a star turn in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at the Barn Theatre in Montville; as the young Nina is Jackie Jacobi who impressed in CTG's Doubt with Dale Monroe; J.M. Hogan is beyond perfect in the outrageous role of the oversexed Spike; Tasha R Williams marvelous in the equally outrageous role of Cassandra, cleaning lady and vodoo practitioner.
The play premiered in 2012 at Princeton's McCarter Theater with a cast led by three-time Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver and four-time Emmy Award winner David Hyde Pierce. The playwent on for a good run in New York winning the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, as noted.
This production, as you may have guessed, is inspired by Chekhov, but with a modern twist by Durang. It starts in an idyllic setting, a country house in Bucks County Pennsylvania (marvelous set) with Vanya (Michael King), calmly at rest in the morning room overlooking a pond, reading while sipping his morning coffee, normally provided by his adopted sister Sonia (Lauri MacMillan).
This morning however, the possibly bi-polar Sonia was tardy and is outraged that he made his own coffee. Her reaction to this dastardly deed is over the top. We reveal only that work was provided for the cleaning lady. Sonia for many years cared for their parents right up to their demented end and now her only sense of worth is providing for her fellow 50 something brother Vanya. The two have lived in the house sincechildhood. Their names, of course, were selected by their professor parents active in local Bucks County community theater.
Neither Vanya or Sonia have ever been employed, although Vanya has play writing ambitions. Neither, have ever been, or even close to being married, Sonia cries "I haven't lived'' and Vanya is 'quietly' gay, with no apparent relationships. They are living on the good graces of their, dare we say fading, stage and film star sister Masha (Leslie Gayle Williams) who owns the house and pays all the expenses.
Masha who has been absent for several years returns with an objective that promises to negatively alter Vanya and Sonia's lives. She arrives dramatically, but again remember she's a movie star who never lets anyone forget her exalted status in society, with toy-boy Spike (J.M. Hogan). Her previous romantic encounters included five failed marriages. (Left: Lauri MacMillan and Leslie Gayle Williams)
Oversexed Spike is happiest when wearing next to nothing, which discreetly registers with Vanya. Keeping the four in line is the sassy cleaning lady Cassandra (Tasha R. Williams) who gets more than her share of laughs as she delights in bursting the pretentious Masha and Spike's balloons. She claims psychic powers and dabbles in voodoo magic. She hilariously applies her voodoo skills on Masha in an attempt to alter her plans.
Early in the play, Masha informs the household that she has been invited to a costume party at the nearby former home of Dorothy Parker. Naturally, only the famous locals are invited, but she has had them (Vanya, Sonia, and Spike) invited in order for her to complete her costume theme (sorry, no reveal/spoiler here either, oops...don't look at the top photo!).
A turning point for Masha comes when a young theater student from next door, Nina (Jackie Jacobi) arrives. Nina is in awe of Masha, while gaining attention from the young stud, Spike....much to Masha's considerable displeasure. Nina gets to demonstrate her acting talent to Masha via a reading of Vanya's unfinished play. She convincingly plays a molecule.
The plot may be thin and a bit obvious but this is a very enjoyable play with many hysterical moments, particularly Vanya (Michael King) venting his frustration with Spike who is rudely texting during the play reading This leads to a rant about modern, sterile, solo communication via e-mail and texting, versus the shared event days of the 1950's. He recalls particularly the tv programs of the period...from Ed Sullivan to Howdy Doody to the very mis-named Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
The play sold out for both opening weekend performances (no Mother's Day matinee). The remaining dates are May 13, 14, 20, 21 at 8 PM and 15, 22 at 2 PM.
Tickets are $20.00 with a discounted price of $18.00 for seniors over 65 and students under 18. Tickets may be purchased online at www.chestertheatregroup.org.
The Chester Theatre Group performs in The Black River Playhbouse, an intimate, 100-seat theater in the heart of Chester Borough’s historicdistrict. The venue’s in-the-round format ensures that every seat offers an engaging, memorable experience for each audience member. The theater is located on the corner of Grove Street and Maple Avenue.
Director Chase Newhart's creative team includes: Producer Ellen Fraker-Glasscock; Stage manager Roxanna Wagner; Set design Stephen Catron; Construction/Painting Stephen Catron and Juliet Messina; Lights/Sound programmer Ellen Fraker-Glasscock; Costumes Francis Harrison; Dresser Barbara Henderson; Props Colleen Lane; and Lights/Sound operator Richard Vetter.