When actress and director Nicole Farmer moved to Wilmington a little over a year ago, she threw herself into the local theatre scene. Having moved from LA and graduated from NY’s The Juilliard School, Farmer already received nominations at her first Wilmington Theater Awards in January of 2014. She directed “In the Next Room” at Cape Fear Playhouse, which received nods for Best Play, while her highly praised “William and Judith” at Browncoat Theatre also scored her a nomination as Best Director.
“I have been acting for 30 years all across the country,” she says. “From NYC to LA—and I have directed theatre in Los Angeles, prior to moving to Wilmington.”
Before Tom Briggs’ exit as artistic director for Thalian Association, he approached Farmer about doing the 2013 Tony Award-winning play, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” in the association’s intimate Red Barn Studio Theatre off 3rd Street. Written by Christopher Durang, the show had an off-Broadway run in 2012 before moving to the big lights in 2013 and starring Sigourney Weaver, David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen, and Billy Magnussen. Its plot follows a group of middle-aged siblings, three of whom live together. The fourth—an actress who supports them—comes for a visit and comedy, drama and bickering unfold. The show has been hailed for its narrative, characters, and setting, all of which some critics say are derivative of Anton Chekhov’s writing. Durang has denied the show being a parody of Chekhov’s work.
“This play deals with sibling rivalry and the fear of aging in a very humorous way,” Farmer explains. “The first time I read it, I could not stop laughing to myself, and I could not put the script down.”
Though she’s yet to see the show, Farmer says she’s approaching its direction much like she does with other shows. First, she has assembled a great cast, including the debut of newcomer Mirla Criste.
“She is playing Cassandra . . . and is an Equity actress who appeared on Broadway in ‘Miss Saigon’ and numerous other professional theatre productions,” Farmer tells.
Mike O’Neil, Holli Saperstein, and Tamara Mercer round out the roster. Farmer admits she’s been biting at the bit to work with the local veteran thespians. Young actor Jacob Keohane will be transforming into Spike. “For starters, he is brave enough to spend most of the play in his underwear!” Farmer notes. As well, the scantily clad role of Nina will be played by Hannah Smith.
Aside from being well-written, “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” soars because of its connectivity with audiences through extreme hilarity, even if mired in darker moments. It also won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, the Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Broadway or Off-Broadway Play and the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Play.
“In addition to being wildly funny, it offers some keen insights into the challenges and agonies of 21st century life,” Farmer explains. “The comedy is so human, and hits so close to home that it hurts a little. When we are young, we all have hopes and dreams of what ‘we will be when we grow up,’ and this play looks at disappointment, stardom, fame, success, money, and the lack of money—all of which are a part of the process of finding fulfillment and meaning in our lives.”
Farmer has needed to hone in on the bonds between the six people in the cast to secure the family ties which carry the show into believability. After their numerous table reads, she asked they go on a “field trip” together one afternoon along the Riverwalk downtown.
“I asked the siblings to [go] to a quick mart to buy their favorite childhood candy, and then walk down to the Cape Fear River and share a story from their own childhood,” Farmer explains. “I also asked them to throw stones into the river and see who could throw the farthest.”
Farmer hopes to procure a sentiment of sacredness between the cast in order to showcase authenticity of familial ties onstage. “Little things like that are what I hope will build closeness and shared memories that are so important when portraying siblings,” she continues.
Set in a sunroom in an old home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, set design is in the hands of local filmmaker Benedict Fancy, while Lance L. Howell is overseeing lighting and Debbie Scheu in costumes. Thalian Association’s new artistic director, David Loudermilk, has worked closely with Farmer leading up to the show’s opening, too.
“She is an extremely talented director with a great attention to detail,” Loudermilk notes. “This show is so far out and yet underneath everything there are moments extremely familiar to anyone. Nicole has done an outstanding job of putting this cast together.”
Farmer has no intent of slowing down, either. Multiple projects are taking up her time, including a collaboration with Port City Playwrights founder Susan Steadman. Farmer will direct Steadman’s original, three one-acts, “What Doesn’t Kill Me…” at the Cape Fear Playhouse this November.
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Red Barn Studio Theatre
1122 S. 3rd Street
Thurs. – Sat., May 29th-31st, Fri.-Sat., June 6th-7th, 13th-14th, 19th-20th, 7:30 p.m. Sun., June 1st, 8th, 15th, 21st, 3 p.m.