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Steve Feeney

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Posted: October 24, 2016

Over-the-top performances bring humor to this family feud

Written by: Steve Feeney
Laura Houck as Sonia and Lisa Stathoplos as Masha. Photo courtesy of Good Theater

Laura Houck as Sonia and Lisa Stathoplos as Masha.
Photo courtesy of Good Theater

Good Theater has kicked off its 15th season with the Portland premiere of a comedy that draws on characters and themes from the work of playwright Anton Chekhov, as well as from Greek tragedy.

But the appeal is much broader than a chance to play spot-the-reference. Christopher Durang’s “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” offers enough wacky comedy, laced with allusions to pop culture and social issues, to keep the laughs coming on many levels.

The play concerns Vanya and Sonia, unemployed and unmarried siblings who are living out their dismal lives in the rural Pennsylvania home where they once cared for their college professor parents. When their sister, Masha, an actress who now owns the house and has been supporting them from afar, returns for a visit and announces her plans to sell the place from under them, long simmering resentments and regrets come to a head in ways both hilarious and ultimately touching.

To fit Durang’s slightly unhinged aesthetic, director Brian P. Allen has allowed the cast of six to take full advantage of the opportunity to give broadly expressive performances.

Laura Houck got the ball rolling as the “bipolar” Sonia, who alternates between severe depression and a shattering rage as she contemplates having “never really lived.” Houck was a standout as she brought Sonia’s emotional edge forward in large and small ways throughout the performance. Her impersonation of a famous actress was a comedic highlight.

Paul Haley as Vanya. Photo courtesy of Good Theater

Paul Haley as Vanya.
Photo courtesy of Good Theater

Local theater veteran Paul Haley maintained a quiet presence as the world-weary Vanya, playing off Sonia’s mood swings with a steady hand, before reaching his breaking point late in the second act. The fire in his over-the-top paean to a lost American culture, replaced by one where the environment is in peril and electronic communications have replaced “shared memories,” crackled with comedically couched anger.

Lisa Stathoplos took her Masha into the high reaches of desperation-fueled theatricality. Whether trying to keep control of her boy-toy Spike or lamenting on a career that has placed her in a series of B-movies, Stathoplos’ Masha was a gonzo drama queen, but with a big heart after all.

Marshall Taylor Thurman’s shallow Spike offered physical charms that kept the high-minded siblings off balance for a while. Meredith Lamothe’s young, talentless actress, Nina, who appears from next door, provided them all with a clueless foil as their life-restoring dreams return. And Noelle LuSane stole scenes as a flamboyant housekeeper with psychic powers that ultimately help to cut through all their delusions.

Craig Robinson designed the elaborate, rustic interior set, the depth of which made room for some physical comedy.

All the elements of this production serve to take us to a place where folks may be a little nutty but not unrecognizable.

“Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike”

Where: Good Theater, St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland
Reviewed: Thursday, Oct. 20; continues through Nov. 20
Tickets: $22 to $30
Contact: 207-885-5883; goodtheater.com

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