REVIEW WRITTEN BY CHERYL THORNBURG
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Superb performances plus the ingenious writing of Christopher Durang make Steel River Playhouse’s current production, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” one of my favorite theater experiences this year. The Tony Award-winning comedy delivers on many different levels, kind of like multi-tasking theater.
Set in Bucks County, it focuses on the lives of two middle-aged siblings living in their secluded family home in the country, while their movie star sister is living a glamorous life in the city. Their late parents, both professors, named the three after characters in plays by Anton Chekhov, which gives a major clue as to why this play is so special and multi-layered.
Durang has taken Chekhovian characters and situations, mixed them up and brought them into the 21st century, with contemporary problems, but universal themes that hold true as well today as they did in Chekhov’s time.
There is nothing old-fashioned about it. The characters are fresh and compelling and the dialogue is crisp, witty and riddled with references to Chekhov and classical literature. If you’re a Chekhov fan, you’ll recognize references to “Uncle Vanya,” “The Three Sisters,” The Seagull,” and “The Cherry Orchard.”
If you’re not familiar with Chekhov, fear not – this play stands on its own quite well. It’s funny, physical and takes aim at social mores and societal trends.
Director Drucie McDaniel has taken this gem and found the perfect cast to bring it to life.
Philip Seader has turned in some outstanding performances in previous Steel River productions including “The Miracle Worker” and the hilarious “The Complet Works of Wm. Shakespeare (revised) [Unabridged],” but he has outdone himself as Vanya. Seader’s subtle portrayal of the passive and peace-making brother is compelling while still being delightfully funny. He slowly reveals different aspects of Vanya’s personality and delivers a passionate tirade in the last act that will strike a cord with many audience members.
Seader is not the only one to switch things up. Lori-Nan Engler delivered a stunning performance in the powerful “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” As Masha, the wealthy movie star (albeit B movies), she demonstrates great comedic timing and a flair for physical comedy.
Lorraine Barrett plays Sonia, the other sister, with classic Chekhovian style – dramatic, emotional – as she longs for love and a more meaningful life. Barrett masterfully takes the unpredictable and explosive Sonia who pounds out the classic Russian song, “Dark Eyes,” on the piano in the first act to a more positive and hopeful Sonia after venturing out of her home to attending a costume party. And she evokes lots of laughter with both personae.
Rounding out the title characters is Matthew Robertson, as Spike, the young actor who is the much older Masha’s lover. Robertson, a newcomer to Steel River, is hysterical as the uninhibited Spike, who sheds his clothes down to his underwear for much of the show. He is a gifted comedian and his energy adds a youthful element to the mix.
Adding a different kind of energy is Lisa Perry, who plays the exuberant and outspoken Cassandra, the housekeeper who is constantly offering dire predictions and warnings to the family members. Perry makes the most of this over-the-top, delightful character and elicits almost constant laughter with every line.
Lindsay Lohr adds a calming element to the mix as Nina an aspiring young actress who becomes attached to Vanya and begins calling him “Uncle Vanya.” Her presence stirs up more drama, as Masha becomes jealous of the beautiful young woman. Add Masha’s announcement that she intends to sell the family home and everyone is reeling. The uncertainty adds another Chekhovian touch.
Steel River’s production is polished, sophisticated and truly funny. I would actually love to see a second time – and I don’t often say that. It’s easy to see why it won the Tony for Best Play.
IF YOU GO
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through Sunday Oct.25. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The Saturday matinees are new this year and give theater fans who don’t like to drive after dark a second opportunity to see the show.
Tickets are $17 to $29 and are available online at www.steelriver.org, or by calling the box office at (610) 970-1199. You can choose your seat when you book online. Groups of 10 or more are eligible for discounts. Steel City Playhouse is at 245 E High St, Pottstown.