Laura McLean was a teenager when she first encountered Christopher Durang, using one of the American playwright’s monologues as an audition piece for acting roles.
“I remember first reading his work and absolutely falling in love with his characters,” the Vancouver-based director said.
“Even when they do things that seem completely outlandish, you understand why, because they have this incredible heart and emotions in them, and it just kind of takes them on unexpected paths.”
Accordingly, when the Guild Theatre’s artistic director, Brian Fidler, invited her to direct Durang’s wildly successful 2012 comedy, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, McLean leapt at the opportunity. The Broadway version won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2013, with a cast that included two TV and screen stars, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver – a fact that didn’t surprise McLean.
“A play like this, which is so complex and rich, with the nuances of the comedy and what’s happening with the characters in each scene, is so juicy to dig into, both as a director and as an actor,” she said.
“I can understand why anyone would jump on this script over any other, for sure.”
The play opens on a humdrum morning in the humdrum lives of humdrum middle-aged Vanya (played by Mike Curtis in the Guild production) and his humdrum adopted sister, Sonia (Elaine Schiman). They and a third sibling, Masha (Mary Sloan), were all named by their theatre-loving parents after characters in various plays by Russian comic playwright Anton Chekhov.
Vanya and Sonia have spent their entire lives in the family home in parochial Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Until recently, they have had little to do but care for their now-deceased parents and the estate’s nine-tree cherry orchard (no kidding). Masha, on the other hand, escaped early to Hollywood and became a movie star of some repute, as well as financial backstop to Vanya and Sonia. Now, with five marriages in her wake and her star beginning to fade, she’s back in Bucks County.
Not only is she back, but she has dragged along her much-younger lover, Spike (James Cleary). Spike is a hotty who takes every opportunity possible to rip off his shirt and display his physique, but he’s clearly not a candidate for Mensa. Now, throw in a cleaning lady named Cassandra (Rosie Stuckless) who, like her mythological Greek namesake, is given to uttering dire warnings about the future that go largely unheeded.
Then add the neighbour’s beautiful, but naïve, young niece, Nina (Julie Laliberte), who idolizes Masha, but also provokes her jealousy by provoking Spike’s libido. Finally, take the action to a Disney-themed costume party, where various home truths emerge – including the fact that Masha intends to sell the ancestral home and pursue a stage career – and the comic chaos quickly ratchets upward.
“I would describe it as a comedy of the unexpected. A scene will often start, and you might think that it’s going to go one direction. Then a character will say something, and you realize that it’s going in the complete opposite direction,” McLean explained.
Although Durang has sprinkled the dialogue with sly allusions to Chekhovian characters and themes, enjoying it doesn’t require a deep knowledge of the Russian master’s work, or of Bucks County (where playwright Durang actually lives).
“[It] has a lot to say about family dynamics, our hopes and dreams. I think anyone can appreciate the humour of these characters’ lives, regardless of where it’s set or where you’re set,” McLean said.
“It’s a gentle humour, and at times it is wacky, and wild, and situational. Then, at times, the characters’ hearts break, and your heart breaks with them, and then you can’t stop laughing at them.”
This is McLean’s third directing stint in Whitehorse, following her work on The Syringa Tree for Larrikin Entertainment in November of 2017, and The Shape of Things for the Guild in 2014. She is a drama graduate of the University of British Columbia, and received a master’s degree in directing at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school in the U.K. She is also co-artistic producer (with Christine Quintana) of Vancouver’s Delinquent Theatre.
McLean believes the intimacy of the Guild’s black box is enhanced for this production by Fidler’s interpretation of the family home’s morning room, his first effort as a set designer.
“It’s great. It’s really inviting you into the warmth and feel of this house that they’ve lived in for their whole lives, which has not really been updated in 50 years at least. You really feel welcome, and you feel that you’re there with them in this room.”
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike opens Thursday, January 24 and runs until Saturday, February 9 at the Guild Hall on 14th Ave. Curtain time is 8 p.m. sharp.
More information is available at www.GuildHall.ca.