Chekhov-inspired comedy opens Highwood Theatre’s season

Vanya Pub 11 1 copyThe cast of Christopher Durang's comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” now playing at Highwood Theatre. COURTESY PHOTO  Richard Fiske admits to being an adrenaline junkie.

He fulfilled that need in the past by serving as a U.S. Navy officer for 27 years, then as an engineer and diving and salvage engineer, also for the Navy.

Now he gets that fix onstage.

For over six years, he’s performed as an actor in the D.C. area. “I get to do fun stuff and be different people,” Fiske said.

His current role is Vanya in Christopher Durang’s comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the production launching Highwood Theatre’s 2017-2018 season. The play also stars Margaret Condon as Sonia, Rachel Varley as Masha, Thomas Shuman as Spike, Kecia Campbell as Cassandra, and Amber James as Nina.

“As a character, Vanya hasn’t done much in his life, and wishes he had,” Fiske explained. “In other words, he’s frustrated, depressed, and repressed.”

The play owes several elements to the influence of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Several of the characters’ names, the cherry orchard setting, and the possible loss of an ancestral home all derive from Chekhov’s dramas. However, despite comic elements and irony, few would describe Chekhov’s plays as comedies.

Durang has said that, rather than parody the Russian playwright’s work, he has put it “through a blender.”

In his mix, two middle-aged siblings, Vanya and Sonia, live in the family home in Bucks County, Pa., where they stayed after spending their adulthood caring for their now-deceased parents. Neither works, but their movie star sister, Masha, supports them, allowing them to remain obsessed with lost opportunities rather than with life. A visit from Masha with her much-younger, muscular, and vain boyfriend, up-end their monotonous lives. So does the neighbor’s young and pretty niece Nina, an aspiring actress.

The play opened at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, before going to off-Broadway and Broadway and winning a Tony in 2013. The original casts included David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver.

Directing the comedy is Melissa Robinson, a journalist by day who has always loved theater and cut her teeth on high-school musicals.

“I got back into theater about 10 years more actively, at first in community theater, then small, non-Equity professional theaters in the area,” said Robinson.

She directed her first full-time drama two years ago, but wasn’t sure about tackling comedy.

Not that she is without experience. Robinson spent four years in America's oldest collegiate improv comedy group My Mother’s Flea Bag while attending Boston College. Amy Poehler is one of its alumni.

“At first it was intimidating to direct “Vanya,’” Robinson admitted. “There are various things you can do to help comedy, like working on timing. For this play I asked the actors to emphasize parts of words. But comedy is almost something that happens by magic. You have to have a touch for it, a knack.”

She was pleased to find that her cast did.

Margaret Condon plays Sonia, whom the actress defines as the “sad, stay-at-home sister who has made self-pity both vexingly endearing and chaotically charming.” Condon describes the play “an intelligent comedy that will appeal to a broad range of tastes – from fans of Anton Chekhov to lovers of rollicking farce.”

It was his fandom for Hyde Pierce that encouraged Fiske to take the comic plunge. Previously, his favorite role had been Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“It might have been Hyde Pierce who said it – but someone did – that Durang is fun and absolutely crazy – and it’s grand to play one of his characters,” Fiske said.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” opens tomorrow and runs through Oct. 28, Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., and Sunday performances at 2 p.m.

The Highwood Theatre is located at 914 Silver Spring Avenue in Silver Spring. You can purchase tickets, each priced at $25, online at the; by e-mailing reservations@thehighwoodtheatre; or at the box office by calling 301-587-0697.



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