There is a measure of hope in Christopher Durang's darkish comedy, VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, that, given the right if not crazy convergence of circumstances, the cold lonely winter of isolation, self-sacrifice, and aging (an all too familiar condition in modern society) will surrender to the redemptive warmth of the sun. It plays out in the final chords (thank you, George Harrison) of what is an arduous, overlong, and at times trite opus, periodically punctuated by fiercely ingenious dialogue. As accomplished and admired a master of satire and dark comedy (Beyond Therapy, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You) as Durang is, he does, in this critic's opinion, have a knack for overplaying his hand and overwriting his plays. One of the challenges, therefore, in directing and acting Durang's works is to pick up the pace, vary the pitch, and render the implausible believable.

Save for some flashes of acting brilliance that offset some otherwise uneven performances, Theater Works' current production of V&S&M&S meets the challenge only part of the way. The show hits its high points in the first act, thanks of course to Durang's snappy writing and especially to the exceptional and distinctively comedic performances of Cathy Dresbach as Sonia, Bruce Laks as Vanya, and Lesley Ariel Tutnik as Cassandra the ditsy cleaning lady with an uncanny talent for prophecy; drags over speed bumps and nutty vignettes in the second; and ends on a syrupy note of sibling reconciliation and optimism.

Here's the setup: In the upscale Pennsylvania farmhouse of their upbringing and downfall, brother Vanya (who marches to a different drummer) and step-sister Sasha (bipolar, self-deprecating and awash in hopelessness) live their lives in quiet desperation, punctuated by the banter of irreconcilable but complementary and codependent differences. For fifteen years, they have shared in the caretaking of their scholar parents and now measure out their lives in coffee spoons (or broken coffee cups!). They have been subsidized by their better-to-do and self-absorbed sister Masha (Debra Rich), an accomplished actress on the downward slope of her gallivanting career, whose return to the homestead, with boy toy Spike (David Samson) in tow, is guaranteed to shake things up. Masha sweeps in with plans to attend a highbrow costume party as Snow White and, by the way, to sell the farmhouse. Add to the mix the star struck girl next door (Shelby Daeffler) who becomes (unconvincingly) the object of Spike's wandering eye and in turn the subject of Masha's eye-opening epiphany about her own fleeting flame.

Throughout the comedy, Cathy Dresbach provides one after another of brilliant comic moments and, for all intents and purposes, is the epicenter of the play's sturm und drang . There is an artfulness and grace to her movements and gestures that tells Sonia's story more powerfully than words, whether she channels the wild turkeys that roam the property, slouches and sinks like a withering flower into a couch of despair, poses (in a stellar moment of defiance) as the Evil Queen posing as Maggie Smith accepting an Oscar, or dreamily awaits a heron's return as a harbinger of good luck. It is her performance that gives context and texture to the play's other characters and provides a most fitting counterpoint to Bruce Laks' stoicism. Ms. Tutnik spices things up with a hilarious turn as the bohemian seer in sneakers with a vacuum cleaner who foretells the coming chaos.

There's a sad footnote to this review. On the day prior to its opening, the show's director and Theater Works' executive director, Daniel Schay, passed away. His untimely death is a tragic loss for the Valley's performing arts community as he was a leader and source of inspiration in every respect.

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE runs through April 24th at Peoria Center for the Performing Arts' Gyder Theater.

Photo credit to by John Groseclose

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From This Author Herbert Paine

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