Throughout an impressive career on stage, in film, and on television, with performances in comedies, dramas, and science fiction spectaculars, there have been recurring events for actress Sigourney Weaver. From her first stage appearances in New York to her latest at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater to be followed by an encore at Lincoln Center in New York, there are plays by Christopher Durang.
Durang and Weaver first bonded when they were in graduate school at Yale in the 1970s. Weaver credits their immediate friendship to their common outlook. “We have the same dark sense of humor and think that the world is a crackpot place.” But she quickly adds, “We’re not cynical, we’re both very hopeful and optimistic and kind of like ‘please let people behave well and let things go well in the world.’” She filled me in as we talked back stage before a rehearsal for the latest Durang play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” making its world premiere at McCarter Theater on Friday, September 7. Because of the demand for tickets, the run has been extended an extra week through October 14. In addition to Weaver, the play stars David Hyde Pierce and Kristine Nielsen. Nielsen is also a friend from those days at Yale and has appeared in a number of Durang plays.
Yes, there are shades of Chekhov, but Durang has insisted that the play is not a parody, but there definitely are resonances. Weaver admits, “I never thought of Chekhov and Durang together, but they are a very moving blend.” She describes the play as a family drama with characters and themes from Chekhov, set in present-day Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in a place not unlike Durang’s home that he shares with his long-time partner.
“It’s a thoughtful play full of feeling about the passing of time and relationships.” Weaver adds specifics: in the play as in his real surroundings, there is a pond and a blue heron that makes appearances. She plays the part of a ultra-dramatic actress who has returned to the family home where her brother Vanya and sister Sonia have spent their lives. Why these Chekhovian names? The parents of these siblings had been community theater enthusiasts with a special penchant for Chekhov. Spike is Masha’s lover/protege whom she brings with her. Durang wrote Masha for Weaver and she adds with humor, “I’m not sure that’s a compliment. Masha’s awful, but I love her. She has my sympathy. She’s flamboyant, but also very needy. I’m actually thrilled that he wrote it for me. It makes me giggle.”
Masha has done a series of horror movies that sound very funny, but that she takes very seriously. Throughout, there are chances for the script to make fun of the world of show business. “No matter how dreadful a movie may be, filled with unspeakable horrors, the folk in ‘the industry’ talk about their work as if it’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ by Ingmar Bergman.” Could Durang be alluding to Weaver’s series of science fiction classics, the “Alien” movies and “Avatar”?
Masha is “actually a delicious character,” which Weaver doubly enjoys playing especially after portraying Elaine Barish “who’s kind of a girl scout” in the USA Network television mini-series “Political Animal.” If you missed this, Barish is the former wife of a president who was and is a philanderer, while she is the current secretary of state. (Shades of several real-life characters.) Weaver claims the sources are not just one first family, and as the show’s producer claims, “it’s inspired by so many of these incredible political families who are our American royalty.” But Weaver admits that if she ever meets Hillary Clinton, “we may share a little smile. But it’s really not about Hillary.”
The siblings in the play are all in the later part of their lives, and the play’s theme has them looking back and coming to terms with what they have and have not accomplished. “That sounds very boring, but the play is wickedly funny.” And Durang includes his concern about “global warming,” and those who still don’t give it credence even when “chunks of Florida are dropping off into the ocean. It’s done so wittily and also with great heart and a lot of very legitimate righteous anger at the way things are handled in our country.” Overall, the play reminds us to appreciate the “quiet, every day moments, like sharing a cup of tea with your family members.”
The long friendship between Weaver and Durang has been filled with these special moments. They were always doing readings together for their classes at Yale. In a singing class they were always performing duets. “I remember one of them was called ‘Two Lost Souls’ from ‘Damn Yankees.’ We did it very dead pan.” As is sometimes the case in drama schools, the department was “giving me a lot of flak; I didn’t fit their image, I think.” Durang came to her rescue by casting her in one of his scripts for a cabaret show “Better Dead than Sorry.” She explains, “I played this girl who fashioned this kind of helmet on her head and gave herself shock treatments to feel better. It sort of convinced the drama school that I was talented and they sort of backed off and were OK to me after that. I was never the leading lady they wanted me to be. I was much more interested in crazy stuff than the classics.”
Even when she came to New York City, she was drawn to the Off Broadway scene, doing one play after another in “very illegitimate places with crumbling walls and no heat.” Her first New York stage appearance was in Durang’s “The Nature and Purpose of the Universe.” She and Durang co-wrote a double bill “Titanic” and “Das Lusitania Songspiel” in which they starred. It first appeared Off Broadway for a few performances in 1976; then a few years later appeared again and this time both Durang and Weaver were nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Performance in a Musical.
At that point in her career, she appeared in a number of Off Broadway plays and even did a part in a soap opera — “Somerset.” She appeared in other Durang plays: “Beyond Therapy” Off Broadway; then, more recently on Broadway in “Sex and Longing” (1996).
Weaver’s Broadway debut was in 1985 in David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” for which she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play.
She was born in New York City where her dad, “Pat” Weaver was a television executive pioneering both the “Today Show” and “Tonight Show” for NBC. Her mother was a British actress who chose to abandon her film career and focus on her family. There’s an older brother who is now retired, but worked for years in the advertising business. Sigourney remembers going with her dad to watch the taping of “Peter Pan” with Mary Martin, which she remembers fondly as references are made to that story in the current Durang play. “In the play, I quote Captain Hook.”
Weaver received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University, majoring in English. At that time, she thought she wanted to be a journalist. And in a way, she is. “As a journalist, you go into a situation and experience it and come back out and tell people the nugget of what it’s about. That’s what I feel I do as an actor.” And she feels her English major has come in handy when she is analyzing the scripts she receives.
Married for some time to director Jim Simpson, they with two other artists founded the very adventurous and experimental Off Off Broadway theater, “The Flea” in lower Manhattan. Currently, they are in the last phases of fundraising to own rather than rent a theater, with a new building in the World Trade Center area.
The Simpsons’ daughter just graduated from Bates College in Maine. Her passion is horror movies. Her mother thinks she would make a very good writer. “I think she would bring an interesting woman’s view to the horror genre.” Durang is her godfather, and she will be in Princeton for the opening night of his new play.
“I’ve often wanted to be part of repertory company,” admits Weaver, “where you’d play a large part in one, a small one in the next. But because that concept no longer exists in this country except maybe the Guthrie, I’ve tried to do it in my own career personally, play the lead in one, a supporting role in another. I’ve built my own imaginary rep theater in my head. It’s very satisfying and I’m delighted to be back in the theater.”
And certainly, she has run the gamut from serious drama to outrageous comedy or science fiction. Up next for her, she will be off to the New Zealand and Hollywood to make two more “Avatar” movies. She feels that “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” will have a longer life, beyond Lincoln Center and perhaps to London. “I want to be a part of it as long as I can be.”
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Friday, September 7, through Sunday, October 14. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.