Laughter is normally a wonderful experience, full of the joys and tickles that can help heal the wounds of everyday life.
But what if you find yourself laughing at the misery of others? What if you are faced with pitiful people handcuffed by insecurity and doubt, unable to chart a smooth course through life? Can you laugh without guilt?
If these poor people are named Vanya and Sonia and Masha they are the three siblings in the Tony Award winning play of the same name (if you add "and Spike" to the title) then laughter is not only appropriate, it is inevitable.
Under the feathery touch of director Marcella Kearns, this Christopher Durang play takes isolation, desolation and disappointment, and stands them on their ears, filling the Cabot Theatre with chuckles, laughter and outright roars of fun.
The first production of the year by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is the traditional start of the season in Milwaukee, and it got off to a rollicking start.
Vanya (C. Michael Wright) and Sonia (Jenny Wanasek) are middle-aged siblings, living in the home they grew up in in rural Bucks County, a home that is paid for and fully supported by their sister Masha (Carrie Hitchcock).
Sonia was adopted when she was young, and she is worn out from inaction. She never does anything but sit with her brother, watching the lagoon fronting their house. She is the poster child for bipolar depression.
"God knows who my actual parents were," she wails. "I have a feeling they were two drunken Irish people who left me alone every night while they went to the pub. Until one night they were so bombed out of their minds, they walked off a cliff."
Vanya, seemingly unperturbed by life at all, responds with a calm, "Do you have any nice fantasies of who your parents were?" Sonia replies, "No."
Enter Masha, a middle-aged movie star with her decades younger boyfriend, Spike (JJ Phillips). Diva doesn’t begin to describe her. A tangled eagles next of red hair, she acts and looks like Lucille Ball on meth. It takes but a moment or two to recognize that Masha’s entire life is a figment of some imagination and is only a cover for insecurity that runs much deeper than the lagoon on the estate.
Masha announces that she has decided to sell the house, an act that will put her helpless brother and sister out on the street. The decision throws the world into a tizzy, a tizzy fueled by Cassandra (Rana Roman), the voodoo-practicing medium of a housekeeper who spends most of her time warning Vanya and Sonia to "beware" of an almost constant stream of disasters lurking around the corner.
Kearns, who is an actor of immense talents and experience, gives her cast a master class in comedic timing. She has a clear understanding that these roles are big roles, needing big performances. Even as shy and reticent as Vanya is, it still takes an actor with Wright’s skills to make it seem as funny as it can be without overdoing it.
Hitchcock is everything a diva should be. She has all of the extremes of this personality down cold, from the egomaniacal star of the silver screen to the older woman, having five failed marriages and trying to survive her love affair with a young man with a wandering eye.
There is a scene near the end of the play when Masha and Sonia realize separately that their lives are empty, and as they sit adjacent to each other, the tears caught the audience up in a river of laughter.
They were followed by Wright with a rant about how much better life was in the "olden days" than now. It’s a priceless performance with one laugh on top of another.
Roman doesn’t miss out on the speeches either with a series of incantations that cover the width and depth of the stage and a dance with a voodoo doll and a sharp hat pin.
Special words must be for Wanasek who, it was announced at the opening, is this year’s recipient of the Ruth Schudson Leading Lady honoree. The award supports the salary of one woman actor during the season and is named after one of the greatest and most graceful women ever on stage in Milwaukee. Schudson is one of the founders of Chamber and a woman of marvelous distinction.
Wanasek is an actor who, perhaps more than most, understands the intrinsic value in silence. The stage may be totally quiet, yet she fills it without words or action. She knows that her presence is more than enough to hold us in her aura.
She is as able in tragedy as in comedy and watching her work with Hitchcock and Wright is an eloquent testimony that he strength of any production is found when each supports the other. Acting is not a competition; it is a way of life, and the three of them (and you can add Roman) prove that it is a life fully lived.
The saying is that "misery loves company." In this production, it is the company of all of us, who love their misery.
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" runs through Aug. 28 and information of showtimes and tickets is available here.
Production Credits: Director, Marcella Kearns; Scenic Designer, Brandon Kirkham; Costume Designer, Alex Tacoma; Lighting designer, Sean Nicholl; Sound Designer, Sarah Ramos; Properties Master, Nikki Kulas; Stage Manager, Brandy Kline.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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