The Divine Miss M
by Michael Dresdner
L to R: Sonia, Masha, Vanya (Childs, Leeper, Larson) photos by Dennis K Photography
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, directed by Frank Kohel at Tacoma Little Theatre, may well be one of the best comedies you have never heard of, in part because it debuted only four years ago. Funny, fast-paced, and rich with enormous personalities, it’s both a dream and challenge for the right cast of actors, and this production definitely has the right cast of actors.
L to R: Sonia, Vanya (Childs, Larson)
Gay, tranquil Vanya (Martin Larson), lives with his sister Sonia (Dayna Childs) in a gorgeous Bucks County, PA house. After caring for their parents until death, they’ve hit middle age with no jobs and not much of a life to speak of outside their comfortable digs amid a cherry orchard. Named by parents who were fond of Chekov, they bemoan their rather pointless life and comically argue about trifles while Sonia frequently reminds us she alone is adopted. They’re attended by a flamboyant cleaning woman named Cassandra (LaNita Hudson), who, like her namesake in Greek mythology, uses her gift of second sight to make constant dire predictions that no one believes.
L to R: Spike, Masha, Cassandra (Tse, Leeper, Hudson)
The siblings are supported by their movie star sister Masha (Stephanie Leeper) who owns the house and whose very successful career as an actress is starting to wane. Having blown through five failed marriages, she shows up to visit accompanied by her latest boy toy, Spike (Freddy Tse), a preening, lusty youth deeply enamored with his own well-toned physique. He brings a neighbor’s visitor to the house, a young aspiring actress named Nina (Leena Lambert) who inadvertently inspires envy in Masha, whom she idolizes, and lust in Spike, whom she doesn’t.
Masha, grandiloquent and controlling, decides they should all go to a costume party with her dressed as Snow White, Spike as Prince Charming, and the others as dwarves. Sonia alone balks and dresses in a sequined purple gown which inspires her to break out of her shell and channel “Maggie Smith going to the Oscars.” After the party, a frustrated Masha, who failed to be the center of attention, announces she’s selling the house, making the jobless siblings homeless and adrift.
L to R: Vanya, Nina, Sonia (Larson, Lambert, Childs)
Cassandra, who has more or less predicted this, decides she should change bad tidings instead of merely warning of them, with, among other methods, a voodoo doll. Eventually, calm is restored, a happy ending ensues, and all three siblings discover the peace they can give one another.
While the play is admittedly short on plot, it is very long on character development, and all of the outstanding actors in this ensemble cast get their chance to shine. Leeper’s Masha is a sweeping, stage commanding divine Miss M sort, a grand hurricane of a character. It’s the best work yet I’ve seen by this fine actress.
L to R: Masha, Spike (Leeper, Tse)
Larson’s charming, mild mannered Vanya gets his chance to break out in act two, where he brilliantly erupts into a long tirade about the decay of society as seen through a staccato litany of dozens of lost cultural references. His wonderful performance hit home with references all too familiar to people my age.
Childs, whose Sonia is initially mousy and self-questioning, does her delightful character change as Maggie Smith cum Norma Desmond, but returns only partially to her other persona once the purple dress comes off. Hudson, who always commands the stage whenever she steps on it, crafts a Cassandra that is exotic, riveting, and just intimidating enough to be thrilling. Tse makes Spike everything the older generation loves to hate about the younger; flip, insensitive, selfish, and phone-tethered. Lambert, as Nina, contrasts them all with ineffable sweetness and youthful purity.
L to R: Nina, Vanya (Lambert, Larson)
The production crew is equally deserving of accolades. Michele Graves did a wonderful job of costumes, both normal and party version. Lighting by Niclas Olson and sound by Chris Serface were, as they should be, appropriately right and unobtrusive. The stunning set built and painted by Blake and Jen York and propped by Jeffery Weaver was dripping with stone work, wood beams, and just the right furniture and knickknacks to satisfy those of us, like me, who’ve actually lived in Bucks County.
Though the pacing is brisk, this is none-the-less a very long play, about three hours with intermission. It’s also one that is heavy on Easter eggs and theatrical and literary references, including a dose of Chekov, but don’t worry, everything you need to know is cleverly explained in exposition by the characters.
In the final analysis, this is a terrific ensemble cast and crew, both separate and together, bringing a delightful and richly crafted play to life. On top of that, this is a rare chance to see a great work by a fine cast before it becomes a well-known classic.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
April 8th to 24th , 2016
Tacoma Little Theatre