Time was, playwright Christopher Durang — Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Betty's Summer Vacation — wrought pitch-black humor out of outrageous subject matter and a cynical worldview. Those days of acidic absurdity seem gone, replaced (for now, anyway) by a less strident strain of writing. This kinder, gentler Durang had a late-career triumph with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, an appealingly playful work that earned the author the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play.
That an outright comedy would garner the prestigious citation is slightly unusual, but so long as the prizewinning criteria include wit and solid craft, Durang's latest is well-deserving. It's as funny as his earlier successes, yet more accessible and arguably more humane. And in this local premiere staged by Tennessee Women's Theatre Project, it emerges as a welcome comic diversion filled with likable characters.
As the setting, Durang mines his own backyard: the historically white, upper-class enclave Bucks County, Pa., where 50-something brother and sister Vanya and Sonia live in the family home. Their parents are dead, and they rely on support from their sister Masha, a successful stage and film actress whose arrival shortly after curtain's rise incites the play's action.
Disconcertingly — for Vanya, Sonia and their housekeeper Cassandra — Masha has brought along her wannabe-actor boy-toy Spike. She also intends to sell the house, a possibility that shakes her sedentary and isolated siblings to the core.
If this synopsis suggests one of Anton Chekhov's melancholic comedies filtered through Durang's prankish sensibility, then da. (By the time characters address "Uncle Vanya" and allude to a nearby cherry orchard, the playwright's given the game away.) As it turns out, though, the power struggle that ensues is not so terribly combative, and it's leavened by warmth and extended patches of smart humor punctuated by the occasional longer speech that can evoke gales of laughter.
Two performers in particular get the most bang out of the author's fanciful verbal explosions: Tamiko Robinson, whose cagey, prophetic Cassandra uses voodoo and other machinations to derail Masha's plans; and Lane Wright, whose generally composed Vanya burns with a slow fuse — until he erupts in a tirade against the impersonal nature of modern-day society and its obsession with "devices." Terry Occhiogrosso as the long-suffering Sonia and Holly Butler as Masha also do well with Durang's droll yet world-weary dialogue.
Through the siblings, the playwright explores the middle-aged imperative to reassess one's life while continuing to (somehow) harbor hope for the future. The cast is agreeably completed by James Rudolph as the self-absorbed (usually half-naked) Spike and Corinne Bupp as the starstruck neighbor girl who encourages the artistically frustrated Vanya to mount a reading of his original play.
Durang's entertaining work — an affectionate rumination on mature family dynamics, with a wink and a nod toward the energy of youth — is sure-handedly mounted by director Maryanna Clarke. The production further benefits from some clever transitional music: jazzy renditions of Beatles classics by Brazilian pianist André Mehmari.
Feeling the need to disengage from the daily grind for a couple of hours? Durang's lovable neurotic misfits provide just the escape hatch.
Voyage to freedom
Award-winning children's writer Lois Lowry's World War II/Holocaust novel Number the Stars offers a consistently moving take on a harrowing historical episode. Douglas Larche's stage adaptation — playing through March 9 at Nashville Children's Theatre — more than preserves the heart of the story, which concerns a Danish family helping Jewish neighbors escape to Sweden across the Oresund Strait, just as Copenhagen's Nazi occupiers begin to impose their harsh anti-Semitic directives.
Director Scot Copeland's excellent ensemble is led by Amanda Card as 10-year-old Annemarie Johansen, who unexpectedly makes a courageous journey to ensure the success of a boat transport bound for freedom. Others in the high-achieving cast of nine include Rona Carter, Rosemary Fossee and Derek Whittaker, plus Eric D. Pasto-Crosby in a pivotal turn as a member of the Danish Resistance, his dramatic asides providing inspirational perspective.
Scott Boyd's remarkable set — consisting of shadowy piles of household furnishings — symbolically represents the Jewish citizens' sense of violation and loss, while Patricia Taber's period costumes are exemplary.
Recommended for children ages 9 and up, Number the Stars serves as a substantial discussion-starter for young minds striving to understand the Holocaust. On a purely theatrical level, it communicates poignance and heroism and keen suspense — worthy attributes for all ages.