LENOX -- American theater is laced with plays about dysfunctional families, none, perhaps, as wildly dysfunctional as the three siblings in Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," which opens tonight at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre after a week of previews.
Set in a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Durang's Tony Award-winning play focuses on three siblings in their 50s -- Vanya, generally quiet, contained, within himself; Sonia, his somewhat restive adopted sister who is struggling with the monotony of the life she shares with Vanya; and Masha, a celebrity movie actress who may well be starting on the downside of her career.
Accompanied by her significantly younger, self-absorbed companion, Spike, Masha sweeps into the farmhouse on one her infrequent weekend visits with every intention of shaking things up. For sure, by the time this wild and woolly weekend ends, the currents of everyone's lives will have shifted.
The honored comedy -- it won the 2013 Drama Desk Award and a 2013 Tony for best play -- was commissioned by the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. where it received its world premiere in September 2012. The play opened at New York's Lincoln Center one month later and then transferred to Broadway's Golden Theatre in March 2013.
"Vanya and Sonia " is being produced by regional theaters everywhere.
For director, Matthew Penn, this project came along at exactly the right time.
During a pre-rehearsal interview in the Green Room at the Bernstein Theatre -- where he was joined by Elizabeth Aspenlieder, who is playing Masha; Jim Frangione, who is playing Vanya; and Tod Randolph, who is playing Sonia -- Penn said he was looking for a change of pace after having directed Aspenlieder and Tina Packer last summer in the darkest of dark comedies, "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," his Shakespeare & Company directing debut.
"I love comedy," said Penn, who lives in the Berkshires, is co-artistic director of Berkshire Playwrights Lab and spent four seasons as executive producer of "Law & Order," during which he produced 100 episodes and directed many of them.
"In this play, we're talking about human interaction," Penn said, explaining his attraction to the piece.
"What interested me in particular is that Vanya writes a play within this play (and verbally explodes after a thwarted living-room performance of his play for his family).
"That explosion," Penn said, "has to do with connection and disconnection, a theme that's reflected in the metaphor of the family. It's an observation of the perverse nature of the world at present; about how much of what we have now is fragmented. The question for Vanya is do things come together?
"And for Masha, a woman who is adored by many but loved by few, the question is how she finds the love of the few."
"On the surface," Aspenlieder said, "(Masha) comes across as a narcissistic movie star but you can see through her lightly veiled behavior that she is wounded and wants to be loved."
"There is a fine line here. She's bigger than life and if she becomes less than that in playing her then her epiphany at the end of the play doesn't work."
Masha is not alone. Throughout his writing, Durang delights in giving us characters who loom larger than life; revel in excess. Here, Frangione says, Durang does push boundaries but "he supports that with genuinely moving familial scenes; pathos and comedy. It's beautifully balanced."
Balanced, Penn and his actors say, and abundantly clear in the arcs Durang's characters follow.
"He makes sure these characters start in one place and end up in another," Penn said.
"Vanya," says Frangione, "is a wonderful arc of a character; full. He's repressed in so many ways. He goes through a transformation and comes out the other side.
"He wants to be heard. He's longing for a hopeful future. That five-page monologue Durang gives him has a real track."
Durang makes no bones about the Chekhov influence on "Vanya and Sonia ." He's deliberate in his Chekhov references -- literal and figurative; obvious and subtle; tongue-in-cheek and serious. "Vanya and Sonia " is Durang's homage to the Russian playwright.
Durang's most skillful acknowledgment of Chekhov is his nuanced use of Chekhovian themes.
"The two words that come up most often in this play," Penn said, are ‘hope' and ‘despair,' most often ‘despair.'
"The question is whether we will find hope through connection or despair through disconnection and that's what makes us laugh throughout. It's Durang's tip of his hat to Chekhov."