StageWest presents ‘Vanya and Sonia’ and so on

by Michael Morain
Des Moines Register 05/03/2015

According to the number crunchers at American Theatre magazine, its member theaters around the country are putting on 28 productions this season by the Philadelphia playwright Christopher Durang.

That makes him the season’s runner-up, after William Shakespeare, who wins every year. This year he totaled 77.

“So yeah, we don’t really count him,” StageWest artistic director Todd Buchacker said.

But Durang is on a roll. Almost all of his 28 credits are productions of the buzzed-about comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” including the StageWest version that opens Friday at the Des Moines Social Club’s Kum & Go Theater.

The 2013 Tony winner for best play is a popular choice for its flexible casting requirements — six actors of varying ages — but also for its funny, sharp-eyed look at life on the downward slope past middle age.

The first three characters in the title are bickering siblings in their late 40s and 50s. Vanya and Sonia stayed home to take care of their aging parents, until they died, while sister Masha left town to become a fancy-pants movie star. Old resentments flare up when she returns with a boy toy named Spike, “who is inappropriate in every way,” said cast member Jim Benda.

Benda saw the show in New York, where it opened in 2012, and jumped at the chance to join the cast here. The retired snowbird drove back early from Florida for the March 1 auditions and was cast as Vanya.

“It’s just a great part,” he said. “He has this epic rant at the end of the show, where he rants about his frustrations with modern technologies, about the separateness with current society, about his longing for the ’50s and ’60s, when he was growing up.”

“There’s a whole chain of pop-culture references that anybody who grew up in that era will know,” he added. “I didn’t have to Google any of them. You know, I can name all the Mouseketeers.”

There are deeper references, too. Highly intelligent Register readers like yourself recognize, of course, that Vanya and Sonia and Masha are all characters from plays by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who often poked at themes of longing and regret. Those themes play out in the new play, too, but with a twist of Durang’s appreciation for the absurd.

Director Jennifer Nostrala described it as “a mix of existentialism and bedroom farce — which is sort of what life really is, if you think about it.”

‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through May 17.

Where: Kum & Go Theater, 901 Cherry St.

Tickets: $12.50-$30.

Info:www.stagewestiowa.com