“It’s kind of like we have had a winter of really rich, meaty plays,” says Nate Eppler, “and the play that I got to direct is the dessert.”
Eppler makes his Nashville Repertory Theatre mainstage directing debut this weekend with the Rep’s production of Christopher Durang’s 2013 Tony Award-winning play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It opens this Saturday, April 11 at TPAC’s Andrew Johnson Theatre, and follows daring and emotional Nashville REP season productions of The Whipping Man and Death of a Salesman.
“To follow that up with this really carnival confection is really cool,” adds Eppler, whose work as a playwright is well-known to Nashville theater audiences. As the Playwright-in-Residence for Nashville REP, he’s developed several plays including Long Way Down, Larries and Good Monsters, the latter just announced as part of the 2015-16 season.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike premiered in 2012 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. A year later, it was on Broadway. In it, the unfulfilled lives of brother and sister Sonia and Vanya, played by Martha Wilkinson and Bobby Wyckoff, are upended by the arrival of their fading movie star sister Masha, played by Shelean Newman, and her younger boytoy boyfriend Spike, played by Rep rookie Brett Cantrell. Hilarity ensues, and that’s before the neighborhood costume party begins. Jennifer Richmond (Nina) and Tamiko Robinson (Cassandra), both also REP mainstage rookies, round out the cast. Robinson previously played the role of Cassandra when Tennessee Women’s Theater Project presented the play last year.
“You kind of have an idea of the version of the play you want to tell,” says Eppler when asked about the cast. “But you also want to leave a lot of room so you can find it in rehearsal. So for me, it’s not ‘hire the best actors to do the version of the play I want to do,’ but ‘hire the best actors and then figure out what version of the play it is based on what you are getting from them.’
“There’s an evolution of tone and story in the room, and I love where we landed. The cast brought a ton to it. Martha is an amazingly skilled character actress with a huge toolbox; she’s phenomenal and heartbreaking and brings a bristling energy that keeps the play up. Shelean is genuinely daring; she’s like a truck careening into the pay. I feel like all the good stuff in the play is on the collaborators, and my job was just picking out what we kept. On the designer side and actor side it was a bounty of awesome potential choices, and I just narrowed the menu.”
The character Wykoff plays, Vayna, a writer who is “starting to feel the hollowness of his life” according to Eppler, is the one Durang has said in interviews was the role most based on himself. Durang built upon that theme of internal struggle and an unfulfilled life by including elements and character names from the Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov’s canon. It may set the stage for what you think the play is going to be about, but in some ways does for Chekhov what Into the Woods does for fairy tales (without the dark, sad and violent second act).
“The play is very absurd,” says Eppler, “but that absurdity is rooted in real things with the volume turned way, way up, so it becomes really recognizable. It’s not just the author, it’s the two sisters and their feelings of unfulfilled promise, as well. You start to see yourself in a lot of it.
“And you don’t really need to know anything about Chekhov to enjoy it. This is not a satire of Chekhov, it’s a family comedy. There is a Chekhov foundation, and by that I mean people are sad about the unfulfilled promise of their lives; there is some unrequited love and some real estate transactions; but other that, you don’t need to know about Chekhov to know what is happening.”
In addition to directing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Eppler has been readying The Ice Treatment for Nashville Rep’s Ingram New Works Festival, which runs May 6-16 at Nashville Public Television’s Studio A. The play centers around the world’s most infamous Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding, who reinvents herself as a screenwriter by pitching the blockbuster screenplay of her own life story.
“It might not be factual, but it’s all true” says the play’s official synopsis.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is in previews April 9 and 10 and opens Saturday, April 11. It runs through April 25 at TPAC’s Andrew Johnson Theatre. Get more info on NowPlayingNashville.com.