Smile Politely

A big hit in a small theater

I don’t know what I was expecting when I walked into the Station Theatre this Friday, but it surely wasn’t what Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike delivered to its audience. Oh no, it was something far beyond that: a mix of quirky humor and realistically appealing characters.

The Station Theatre was packed wall-to-wall, in an almost uncomfortable way for the audience, but as soon as the first characters graced us with their presence on stage, we soon forgot how packed the place was and became captivated by the show.

The play begins with two siblings bickering back and forth. It is mundane, with a touch of bizarre, and it is funny. The chemistry between the two is electric as they argue about a simple cup of coffee, but the moment takes a turn when Sonia (played by Barbara Ridenour) throws not one but two cups against a wall. The silence plays at the audience’s nerves, and the two continue to bicker about meaningless things.

Jokes and timing; set ’em up, and knock ’em down.

Very quickly we’re introduced to Cassandra (Shawna Smith), an eccentric housekeeper who takes her name quite seriously and believes that she has psychic powers (but has also been cursed so that no one can believe her). That said, we later see the true extent of Cassandra and her magical presence on stage. Cassandra warns Sonia and Vanya (Gary Ambler) that they should stay away from “HootiePie.” The siblings have no idea who or what the mysterious HootiePie might be, nor have they a clue about the mayhem that is about to ensue.

Enter mayhem.

Sonia and Vanya have a successful sister, Masha (Jaclyn Loewenstein), a fading movie star whom the siblings seem to both envy and despise. They have good reason, it would seem, for Masha ran off to be an actress while they were forced to stay behind and care for their ailing parents.

At first, Masha seems like a disagreeable, egotistical character who dreams of grandeur and splendor and must be the center of attention at all times. As the play progresses, though, so does her character, and she soon became one of my favorites.

Loewenstein knows how to work a crowd. One moment that stands out in my memory involved her banging a wooden spoon against a pot. When the spoon broke (you gotta love live theatre), she improvised and made the crowd love her even more. One of my favorite Masha moments occurs when Sonia waltzes in wearing a glamorous black sequin dress and feathered headband. Sonia is the star at that moment, and you can sense the rage coming from Masha when she realizes it.

Another favorite scene of mine is when the quiet, even-tempered and well-mannered brother Vanya becomes enraged by Spike (Maxwell Tomaszewski), who is Masha’s much younger boy toy. Spike’s cell phone use sends Vanya into an epic rant about the glories of the past (such as rotary phones and stamp-licking) that, on the night that I attended, left the audience’s collective jaw on the floor. A masterful bit of acting.

All three siblings seem to be struggling with some profound mental illness. Of course, it’s an exaggeration of life, but it’s easy to see why this play attracts a large following. It’s simply human to crave something that you don’t have. Vanya and Sonia want to live life, while Masha wants to relax. Each sibling wants what the other one has, unfortunately, and that is their tragedy. They can’t accept change or their true age, and Spike is there to remind them that they’re old. And maybe that’s okay.

Spike is immature, as well as not very bright, and he runs around in his underwear half the play. You want to believe that he’s got a heart of gold, but as one character points out, “He’s just so cute… except for his personality.” Tomaszewski does a fantastic job of keeping a straight face, and he brings a lot of charm to the role.

The play is a mixture of mayhem and melancholy that will have your sides hurting from laughing so much. It’s a blend of new and old that will have you perceiving your own life and relationships. It’s a look at how afraid people can be of change but also how good change can be. The characters are hard not to fall in love with, but even harder not to compare yourself to.

The play continues April 2-6 and 9-12. All shows begin at 8:00 p.m., and you would be wise to make a reservation immediately if you want to see this fast-selling comedy hit. Go to the website now, or call 217-384-4000. And do be on time. Any unclaimed reservations are released to the (expected) waiting list promptly at 7:50 p.m. This is a hot ticket, and for good reason.

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