|On the heels of “Shirley Valentine” Ojai Art Center Theater continues their 2020 season with another story where characters break out of their humdrum lives with vibrant transformations. Christopher Durang’s multi-award-winning comedy “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs March 20-April 12.
The play opens with Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia stewing in the remote Pennsylvania country house they inherited from their parents. Both middle-aged, they bicker like they hate each other, yet they appear resigned to their situation.
In his day job Peter Schreiner, who plays Vanya, works as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for Ventura County so he knows how people develop this type of interdependence on each other. He talked about homeostasis where people tend to maintain a balance in order to keep functioning. “People stay the same and are drawn to behaviors they’re familiar with. They don’t really change until there’s a crisis,” he said.
Calamity comes in the form of Masha, Vanya and Sonia’s flamboyant movie star sister. Masha, played by Tracie Williams Sutton, blows in to first invite them to a fancy party, then informs them she plans to sell the house.
“This crisis of potentially losing the house has been thrown in their laps and somehow they manage to navigate through the whole thing,” said Peter. “That’s part of the comedy of the brilliant Christopher Durang, showing how Vanya and Sonia weave their way through the problem to make a leap in their personal growth.”
Vanya’s character manifests his transformation through a tirade about the shallowness of today’s world, how so many things exist but come and go so quickly. He mourns a sense of shared experiences, like laughing at an episode of “Ozzie and Harriet” when televisions only aired three channels, instead of 785 on contemporary TVs. Plus, “We licked postage stamps!”
Sonia’s change involves the courage to step outside her comfort zone to attend the party. “We’re not talking big Shakespearian changes,” Laurie Walters Slade, who plays Sonia, said. “We’re talking about those little things in a person’s life that can make a huge difference.”
Shakespeare brought Laurie and Peter together during a less superficial time in Hollywood. In 1985 Laurie played Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Skylight Theatre. Peter, a student of the legendary Milton Katselas who directed that production, played Romeo’s friend Benvolio. In 2000 Laurie and her late husband John Slade came to Ojai to participate in a summer production of “Julius Caesar.” Peter and Laurie met up again, this time in Ojai, when John played King Lear, and Peter played his loyal friend the Earl of Kent, in a 2003 production of the Ojai Shakespeare Festival. After Peter played Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing” in 2004 he retired from theater.
Last fall when Laurie accepted the part of Sonia and knew about the search to fill the other roles, she thought of Peter. She called and begged him to audition. Director Linda Livingston felt so sure about Peter playing Vanya she offered him the part without a call-back.
“It’s a pleasure to come back to the theater after all these years to work with somebody with Laurie’s authenticity,” Peter said. “I’m getting to work with an artist who cares about the humanity of the character. It may be a comedy but we’re playing real people and need to capture each character’s subtext.”
“I don’t think you could find somebody more grounded and real than Peter,” Laurie said. “I can always try something with Peter without warning him and he’ll take it and run. We have a comfort level that comes from knowing each other a long time.”
Witness for yourself how Laurie and Peter’s long friendship lends a genuineness to their portrayal of brother and sister at the Ojai Art Center Theater, March 20 through April 12.