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BWW Interviews: A 20-Year Friendship at the Heart of Arena Stage's VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE

In the words of Aaron Posner, actors Grace Gonglewski and Eric Hissom are "lifetime members of the Aaron Posner players!" Theirs is a professional relationship and personal friendship that dates back two decades. When Arena Stage's production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike begins performances, they'll once again find themselves in familiar positions with Gonglewski and Hissom onstage and Posner in the director's chair.

Their friendship began in 1995. Gonglewski and Hissom had just worked together at Cape May Stage and she was heading back to Philadelphia's Arden Street Theatre to do a production of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara directed by Posner.

"We had just worked together at Cape May Stage and when I came back to Philly, every play I did, I wanted to work with Eric," says Gonglewski. "He's a very present and unselfish actor. So when I was about to do Major Barbara, I knew I wanted Eric to be my partner."

"They were having a hard time casting the role and because Aaron is thorough, I ended up auditioning for him five times," Hissom says laughing. "He liked what I was doing and cast me! Since then we've worked on 15 productions over the last 20 years. This year, this is my second show with him."

Fast-forward and the trio find themselves working together again, this time on Arena Stage's production of Christopher Durang's 2013 Tony Award Winner for Best Play. At its core, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is about the evolving nature between three siblings, not unlike the relationship between Gonglewski, Hissom and Posner.

"This play is about siblings," says Hissom. "They're getting to a certain age and processing some of their feelings for each other. Aaron and I and Grace are like siblings. We're old friends, who have been through a lot together and so we can relate."

In the play, Vanya (Hissom) and Sonia (Sherri Edelen) find their lives upended when movie star sister Masha (Gonglewski) returns to their Bucks County, Pennsylvania home. Much of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike takes its inspiration from Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Still, Gonglewski says that one doesn't need to be familiar with Chekhov to enjoy the show.

"You don't have to know Chekhov to find the play hilarious," says Gonglewski. "Chekhov explores universal themes and Durang does that here. The play is about Vanya and Sonia and Masha examining and reexamining their lives, trying to find a connection in a fast paced world."

Chekhov is not an unfamiliar theme to Posner who earlier this season wrote and directed Life Sucks at Theater J. The play, which also starred Hissom, is a comedy described as an irreverent variation on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

Normally, most do not associate Chekhov with humor. When asked what is it about the playwright's work that lends itself to comedy Hissom explains, "Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies and the humor is gallows humors. He [Chekhov] is so beloved because he captured, day-to-day, the millions of ways we misunderstand each other and the humor in that."

Even with the humor, Gonglewski adds that one of the reasons she likes working with Posner is because of his commitment to what she calls the deep humanity of the characters.

"He [Posner] doesn't play for the superficial and believes that human beings have a penchant for good and hope," says Gonglewski. "We share that and it's a spiritual kinship. There's an unspoken language that you have playing with people you've known for a longtime."

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike marks Gonglewski, Hissom and Posner's Arena Stage début. Joining them onstage is Sherri Edelen, last seen at Arena Stage in My Fair Lady as Sonia, King Hedley II's Jessica Frances Dukes as Cassandra, Jefferson Farber from Signature's Shakespeare's R&J as Spike and Rachel Esther Tate from Bedlam Off-Broadway's production of Hamlet as Nina.

The production is also Gonglewski's regional début and she says that performing in DC has always been a dream. "For starters, I have sisters who live in the area and they always ask, 'When are you coming to work in DC?' Who doesn't want to work at Arena? Being in the round means getting muscular and really diving in so everything is communicated in 360. It is a dream come true for me."

For Hissom, it's an opportunity that may not have happened had it not been for Posner, who first introduced him to the DC theater scene. "Arena is one of the crown jewels in the regional theater system and me being here is all due to Aaron," says Hissom.

Gonglewski adds, "It's incredible to be here [Arena Stage] and to be working with Eric and Aaron."

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike begins performances on April 3rd and runs thru May 3rd at Arena Stage 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300 or click here.

Photo: Grace Gonglewski (Masha), Eric Hissom (Vanya), Sherri Edelen (Sonia) and Jefferson Farber (Spike) in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Arena Stage. Credit: Tony Powell.

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From This Author Benjamin Tomchik