Sibling rivalry takes center stage in SCCT’s “Vanya and Sonia”

The cast of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are, clockwise from left, Cat Rokavec, Christian Callahan, Lisa Wiedemer, Veronica Rosenberger, Lyn Freymiller and Sally Best.
The cast of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” are, clockwise from left, Cat Rokavec, Christian Callahan, Lisa Wiedemer, Veronica Rosenberger, Lyn Freymiller and Sally Best. Photo provided

Middle-aged siblings bicker and complain and old resentments flare up in State College Community Theatre’s presentation of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

The comedy, written by Christopher Durang, is a riff on the plays of Anton Chekhov, including such elements as character names, the play’s setting in a cherry orchard and the theme of the possible loss of an ancestral home.

It revolves around the relationships of single siblings Vanya and Sonia, who live together, during a visit from their sister Masha, who supports them.

Vanya, played by Lyn Freymiller, and his adopted sister Sonia (Sally Best) share a home in Bucks County, where they bicker and complain about the circumstances of their lives but do nothing about it. Their movie-star sister Masha (Lisa Wiedemer) swoops in with her new boy toy, Spike (Christian Callahan), who can’t resist putting on a show.

Their familial history brings on arguments and a threat from Masha to sell the house where so may memories remain.

Durang’s play, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, among other awards, is semi-autobiographical. The playwright lives in a farmhouse in Bucks County.

“Durang calls it a ‘what-if’ play, where Vanya’s life could have been Christopher Durang’s life, had Durang not made certain choices,” director Philip Vonada said. “For people in our area, there are a few Pennsylvaniaisms, including references to the convenience store Wawa and some local towns and sights. I think that our audiences will be able to relate to Vanya and Sonia especially, and their life in a rural area.”

Vanya’s life has passed him by, having lived with his sister for decades. When Masha and Spike show up, the pair confront their past choices and face an uncertain future. There is witty banter between the three siblings and the three younger characters — and a significant generational divide.

Masha left home and made a name for herself, but she never abandoned the family completely.

“She was the sole means of support for her entire family as their parents declined, and even though her arrival back at the house disrupts everything, I think that point is important to remember,” Wiedemer said. “She’s a famous movie star, but she’s aging and it’s no secret that Hollywood is unkind to women of a certain age.”

And she’s never had a successful relationship, Wiedemer said. “The fact is, Masha is as unhappy as her brother and sister, but for different reasons.”

She said she thinks part of the attraction of Spike is that he makes her feel younger, and that it “feeds her fragile ego to have this young man be attracted to her.”

Also on the scene are the sassy, soothsaying maid Cassandra, played by Veronica Rosenberger, and a young aspiring actress named Nina (Cat Rokavec), whose prettiness threatens the imperious Masha.

Along with all the zany situations and funny dialogue, Freymiller says, there is a layer of poignancy.

“This play is absolutely hilarious, but has a real depth to it as well,” he said. “It’s about the value of family despite your differences, and about the human experience that we all share no matter our ages. Being optimistic is a choice we make.”

Vonada said the strongest message is about finding where you belong.

“Your family isn’t always just the people biologically related to you, he said.” “Sometimes, you get to choose your family, and you should always keep close to the family you do have.”

SCCT is the first theater company in the area to tackle this show.

“I don’t know how audiences are going to react to the characters, but I hope they’ll be able to see themselves in the six characters — each of them is just slightly off-kilter in their own way, each of them is imperfect, but they are also all completely sincere and loving,” Vonada said.

Wiedemer said she hopes audiences leave having laughed and fallen a little bit in love with Vanya, Sonia and Masha.

“I hope the audience maybe recognizes a little bit of themselves in one or more of the characters and cheers him or her on as they figure their way,” she said. “I hope the audience is as in awe as I am of the phenomenal job my castmates are doing.”

“VSMS” is certainly a departure from SCCT’s previous show, “Annie Get Your Gun.” But Vonada thinks audiences will respond positively and that they will relate to the characters and their real-life situations.

“This play is truly a ride, with unexpectedly funny moments and some extremely touching and heartfelt ones,” Vonada said. “Each minute brings a new adventure.”