Christopher Durang’s plays are known for being funny, outrageous, even, at times, absurd. Audiences always react to the themes, but the actors are affected as well. Grace Gonglewski and Sherri L. Edelen are appearing in Arena Stage’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Durang’s Tony Award-winning play about three middle-aged siblings and the plans by one to sell the family home. Each actress found herself relating in different ways to the play’s themes.
“There are jokes and history and baggage between siblings; the minute you’re together, the instant you’re together, there’s unspoken conversations that have gone on,” said Grace, who was raised with seven siblings.“My siblings are my greatest wealth and I was fortunate to have parents that really helped forge deep bonds within us all. That’s been very helpful with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike where feelings get triggered very quickly and go from zero to 50, because it’s not just in this moment that they have this conversation, they’ve had many versions of this over the years that penetrate deeply. There are also inside jokes and we finish each other’s sentences. All of those things apply.”
Sherri’s mother has Alzhemier’s and has been living in a facility where she can be cared for. “Right after this show closes, I’m going home to close up my mother’s house and put it on the market with my siblings and that’s sort of what’s going on in this play,” she said. “Masha comes home and says, `I’m going to sell this house.’ What! Oh, my god! This play is imitating my life right now.”
In the play, Vanya and Sonia, named after Anton Chekhov’s characters, live in the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The third sibling, Masha, is a successful actress and supports her brother and sister. When Masha returns home with her much younger lover, Spike, she brings with her a whirlwind of activity and throws the household into chaos. She’s returned home supposedly to attend a costume party at a neighbor’s home and wants her family and friends to dress up as characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Her other plan is to sell the family home, a move that devastates Vanya, Sonia, and Cassandra, the cleaning woman, who even resorts to voodoo to stop the sale.
Grace played Masha once before, at the Philadelphia Theater Company. “It was the first time the play was done in Pennsylvania where Christopher Durang is from,” she said. (Durang was born in Bucks County.) “He was really hands on with it, really interested. He came in and watched several run throughs, so it was an incredible experience.”
What did she learn from Durang? “I learned that there’s a lot of heart in the play and that it’s important not to sacrifice the depth and grit that’s there for the hilarity that’s there,” she said. “Also, that a lot of things can be taken at face value. We could trust what he wrote, so that was great.”
Because the play includes references to Philadelphia’s icons and landmarks, audiences there connected with the material, Grace said. “Durang said, `Wow! That never got a laugh in New York.’”
Sherri wasn’t familiar with the play, but has connected with the material since being cast as Sonia. “It’s one of Christopher Durang’s silly and crazy plays,” she said. “This one has all those qualities, but it also reads very true about sibling rivalry. It has a lot of real moments. If you understand Chekhov, you’ll understand the Chekhov references, but it’s not absolutely necessary. [The play] is kind of a sitcom, but deeper than that.”
Sherri also has siblings, an older brother and an older sister, and together they are dealing with their mother’s Alzheimer’s, which involved settling her into a facility that takes care of patients with the disease. Anyone who has ever watched a relative or close friend with the condition understands how emotionally draining the experience can be. “Even though you know she’s there and you know she’s safe, it so difficult to know that’s where my mother is,” said Sherri.
While Grace will be making her D.C. debut with the play, Sherri is well known to local audiences. She was in Arena’s productions of My Fair Lady and Cabaret. She won Helen Hayes Awards for Side Show and Les Misérables, both at Signature Theatre, and Helen Hayes nominations for her performance as Momma Rose in Signature Theatre’s Gypsy and for playing the nurse in Folger Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet.
When Grace isn’t on stage, she’s busy doing voice over work. She is the voice of America’s Best Eyewear, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, and many banks, casinos, politicians and hospitals around the country. “One of the great things about voice over is that I don’t have to dress up and I don’t have to be in full makeup,” Grace said. “Someone like Masha, that’s part of what makes it challenging for her. She has to be camera ready and perfect at all times. That can really wear on a person. Whereas with me, I can sort of cash in on the thing as I choose, but I don’t have to live up to anyone’s idea of me. i just have to show up and do the work. That’s great. I love voice over.”
At the time of our interview, neither actress had seen the costumes she would be wearing during the Snow White part of the play, although Sherri said she saw the glittery material that will make up her gown. Sherri laughed about her character being in pajamas for part of the play. “Who doesn’t want to be in pajamas on stage? Sonia and Vanya – we get to be in pajamas!”
Grace said that Masha is “fun and passionate. She’s a little crazy, she’s bold, she says things that no one else says. She’s shocking. She’s just a blast to play.” What will the audiences think of Masha? “Oh, poor Masha,” said Grace with a laugh. While Masha has had a good career, the major roles have stopped coming and she’s in a decline. When she returns home, she’s not in a good place. “I think [audiences] will see a woman who is really struggling with things like we all do. Spoiler alert! Shedding Spike shows that she’s coming to accept who she actually is instead of trying to be an actress who is 20 years younger, 10 years younger than she is. She is very self involved, but I hope they will eventually come to laugh at her and not pity her but have empathy for her.”
“I hope people come away with hope,” added Sherri. “Even though family members don’t get along, there’s hope that they will and it’s the ties that bind that make you strong and there’s always room for healing. I don’t even know what Christopher Durang’s message was, but because of where I am personally in my life, I would like people to walk away with that. And we always laugh at human folly, so I would like them to come in and laugh their butts off.”
Top Photo by Tony Powell:
Left to right: Grace Gonglewski (Masha), Eric Hissom (Vanya), Sherri Edelen (Sonia) and Jefferson Farber (Spike).
Poster by Nigel Buchanan
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Through May 3, 2015
1101 Sixth Street SW