Christopher Durang '71: At the age of Uncle Vanya

by Josh McTaggart

EDITOR'S UPDATE: On June 9, Christopher Durang '71 won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a new play by Christopher Durang ’71, had its official Broadway opening at the John Golden Theatre recently. The play centers around three siblings, Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) and Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), who have grown old and done little with their lives, and their sister Masha (Sigourney Weaver), who has found fame and fortune as a movie star. Despite the character’s Chekhovian names and the setting of a grand house overlooking a pond, the play takes place in modern-day Pennsylvania. I spoke with Durang on the phone earlier this week about the play and the impact Harvard had on his writing.

"I read a lot of Chekhov my freshman year at Harvard." Durang says. "I hadn’t been able to properly understand his work inhigh school. I saw a lot of Chekhov plays when I was in my 20s, and now I am in my 60s. I realized ‘Oh my gosh, I’m at the age of Uncle Vanya’." This revelation led Durang to think about the older characters in Chekhov, and how he was living in a world so different from his past. The play draws on Durang’s experience of getting older, moving out of the city and into the more isolated setting of the countryside. "I live in this house on a hill, and it has a pond, and a blue heron does come to it every morning," Durang explains, referencing the symbolic bird that is mentioned throughout the play. "I began to wonder, what if I had lived in this house all my life, and I had an adopted sister and we were both jealous of our successful sister."

Although Sonia and Vanya have been stuck in the house their whole lives, Durang admits that in his own life he was able to escape the confines of his family home. "In the 1960s, part of growing up was leaving home," he says. Although leaving his recently divorced mother to move to college was a difficult challenge, Durang says he arrived at Harvard a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman.

But by sophomore year, the young writer’s college experience had changed dramatically. Durang makes no attempt to cover up the fact that he suffered from depression during his time as an undergraduate. "People do a lot of things at Harvard," he explains, "And you can lose your confidence and say, ‘I’m not good at this.’" Durang, who had been writing plays since 2nd grade, had convinced himself he had little skill as a writer and spiraled into what he calls an absolute mess.

Through persevering with his creative writing and his work as an algebra tutor, Durang managed to get order back into his college life. When asked in his senior year to direct the musical biblical parody he had written, The Greatest Musical Ever Sung, Durang worried that he might not be mentally up to the task. "But I told myself, ‘I will function’," he says, explaining how he pushed through the process with sheer will power. "The show ran for two weekends and it was really fun, and funny. It even got a really good review from The Crimson."

With his dark college years behind him, Durang believes his most recent play is warmer and better made than his earlier work. "I don’t often think about what I want an audience to take from my plays," he says, "but in [Vanya], the audience start to root for the characters, and the play does end in reconciliation of a sort."


Additional features:

  • Watch a video about the making of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Lincoln Center, where the play was previously produced.
  • Read Charles Isherwood's review in The New York Times.

[Caption: Christopher Durang '71 spoke to students during an OFA Learning From Performers event at Adams House in 1995. ]