Cliff-diving with Wendy Welch: Sonia in CityRep’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike”

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This coming weekend, Oklahoma City Repertory Company (CityRep) opens the #1 most produced play in the United States, Christopher Durang’s fine-tuned comedy with Chekhov-inspired characters and themes, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, featuring a diverse, talented, seasoned cast. The play opened Off-Broadway in 2012 then transferred to Broadway in 2013. There it won both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play as well as recouping its initial $2.75 million investment in under four months. Some actors in CityRep’s production hail from Oklahoma. Stacey Logan, Oklahoma City’s own “Broadway leading lady”, starred recently in CityRep’s Much Ado About Nothing and August: Osage County. Oklahoma City University (OCU) graduate Shawn Churchman starred in CityRep’s The Santaland Diaries and works as Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre at the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Musical Theatre. Current OCU student Lauren Grace Thompson triumphed in featured roles in CityRep’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Much Ado About Nothing. Making their debuts in this CityRep production are current OCU students Haulston Mann and Kyra Wharton. Add one intrepid “import”….

Wendy Welch as Sonia; Shawn Churchman as Vanya (rehearsal shot)

Wendy Welch as Sonia; Shawn Churchman as Vanya (rehearsal shot)

Joining the cast, as a top-flight regional professional based in Dallas, is Wendy Welch, seen last at CityRep in The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Welch brings a special level of experience to her lead role as Sonia as she performed the role earlier in 2014 in Uptown Players’ production of the play in Dallas. I interviewed Wendy Welch, about performing in this Christopher Durang hit. I asked what it’s like to re-create her unique, multi-dimensional role in this new CityRep production, what challenges a new cast and different setting offer.

You have so much experience creating complex roles. Was it hard to create Sonia? “I love being challenged to do new things in middle age! My goal needs to be to do things I’m afraid of. The Uptown Players’ production was my first time to perform in a Durang play, although I’ve seen plenty of them before. Christopher Durang is so challenging. He has a certain style; each character has to be honest and not too broad or caricatured. But funny. He offers actors a level of complexity similar to Stephen Sondheim with musicals. This role was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I didn’t really know how to “wear” Sonia at first. She’s so consumed with self-doubt and can be both passive aggressive and vulnerable. She has to be played with honesty to get the “funny” to work. I don’t think I was funny until about four days before we opened. Then B.J. Cleveland, the Dallas production’s director and a brilliant comic in his own right, gave me a few simple suggestions that just seemed to ‘click.” We performed at the classic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas, a proscenium space that seats at least 200. I had an incredible cast to work with, including Bob Hess as Vanya and Diana Sheehan as Masha.”

How hard has it been to adjust to the needs of the CityRep production, which will play at the intimate CitySpace Theatre at Oklahoma City’s Civic Center? “My physicality has completely changed. Some of what worked before I just can’t do now. Adjusting to a more intimate space has been a challenge. Michael Jones, CityRep’s director and a very distinguished professional, a lovely man, is very specific with what he wants and is intensely focused. He’s called me on some of my more stylized “autopilot” responses that seemed so natural coming from the Uptown production. I just can’t go “big”. It’s fun to be present in my new responses and new reactions. I have apologized to my “inner Sonia” that we were going in a more intimate direction. Being with the new cast, all pros, all different from the Uptown Players’ cast, has been a help. I have no history with anybody in this cast, so it’s been like finding a new family. They aren’t playing the roles the way “inner Sonia” expects to find them. That helps me take her in different directions. We do get to use some of the same furniture, Vanya’s and my chairs from the Uptown production! Insecure Sonia gets to keep her “safe place” on stage. I love working with the new cast, developing that special trust with each one of them. I find it an outstanding professional ensemble. We are taking this exquisite comedy in very interesting directions, and Sonia gets to grow in ways I never imagined.”

I asked Uptown Players’ production’s director B.J.Cleveland and CityRep’s Michael Jones what it’s like to work with Wendy Welch on stage….

B.J.Cleveland: “I love Wendy not only as a friend but as an actress as well. Wendy has a lengthy resume and a wealth of roles and training, but she is STILL a good student who wants to learn. The trick to Sonia (as well as any Durang comedy role) is the character turning on a dime from passive to immediate aggressive, both because of her mental instability as well as the comedic beats. We started with the truth of the character and heightened the reality of the comedy. Wendy, was tentative to, in her words, jump off the cliff and risk outrageousness. She and I had a preview night Pep Rally right before she went out and she jumped…and the audience caught her. The minute she got the first laugh at a Sonia explosion I saw her feel that wave and knew she knew she nailed it.”

Michael Jones: “Wendy is just so right for the role of Sonia, that’s the real asset that she has brought to the table.  And her willingness to adapt to this production and not hang on to what she did previously. I think it has been a bigger adjustment than either she or I anticipated. She has risen to the challenge and has adjusted her performance to suit this production and this space. The cast has bonded very well, and I’m proud of what we’re doing. It’s ending up a very different piece than the one in Dallas.”

Here’s what Dallas cast members had to say about working with Wendy in the Uptown Players’ production:

Bob Hess (Vanya): “I felt so at home with her that it made me able to focus totally on her and on the play in a very laser-like way. The fact that we are so close allowed a lot of playwright Durang’s twists and turns to make so much sense, because the conversations we have with people we are close to are always taking 180 degree turns as things come up or an emotional synapse fires. So the places in Durang’s writing where those unexpected turns happen were very easily navigated because of my comfort with Wendy.”

Diana Sheehan (Masha): “Wendy brings vulnerability and a special wackiness to the role of Sonia. We rehearsed some of our confrontations having pillow fights that seemed to trigger the intensity we needed! Add the wonderful Bob Hess to the play as Vanya, a man and actor we both love; we three didn’t have to work very hard to “become a family”.”

A tense comic moment in Uptown Players' production: Diana Sheehan, Bob Hess, Wendy Welch (i to r)

A tense comic moment in Uptown Players’ production: Diana Sheehan, Bob Hess, Wendy Welch (i to r)

How will Wendy’s Sonia soar in Oklahoma City? Ask Wendy Welch’s cast-mates in the Oklahoma production after the show opens this weekend, in previews November 13th and 14th, opening Saturday night November 15th. Director B.J. Cleveland gets the last word about the fabulous Wendy Welch: Wendy is now a cliff-diver and I know she will adapt to her new onstage family and find new insights to Sonia with a new production. I’m sure the Oklahoma audiences are going to thrill watching her fly….

Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike runs Thursday November 13 through Sunday November 23, a CityRep production directed by Michael Jones. The production will play in the CitySpace Theatre at The Civic Center Music Hall located at 201 N Walker Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73102. Tickets are $8 for Students, Teachers and Military Personnel (with ID), $20 (groups of eight or more), $30 (matinees) and $35 (evening performances).

Tickets: Civic Center Box Office (405) 297-2264. Purchase online at www.cityrep.com

 CityRep Season Sponsors include the Oklahoma Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Richard P. Dulaney Foundation, The Grandison Inn and The City Sentinel.

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