Tony-winning Vanya opens Phoenix season

Ashley Dillard (left, as Nina) lights up the room alongside a world-weary Jen Johansen (Masha).

You can pretty much count on the Phoenix these days for fresh-off-Broadway shows (or fresh-off-off-Broadway, if you will). And they don't get much fresher than Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which closed its Broadway run August 25 after winning just about every award you can name in 2013: the Tony for Best Play, New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play, the Drama League Award for Best Play. And we could go on.

Those character names may come from Chekhov, but as Ashley Dillard, who plays Nina, tells us, there's just as much Durang in the stew as Chekhov - though you don't need to know either playwright to enjoy the play, which she describes as "a farce that's not over the top." Dillard, a 27-year-old Highland, Ind. native making her Phoenix premiere after two-plus years working in New York City, tells us more during a break from three weeks of rehearsals.

I play Nina, a 20-something wanna-be actress who has such a lovely heart and truly believes that anything is possible. It's been really refreshing for me to play a role like this, just because I've been doing a little bit darker stuff while I've been in New York. Everybody wants to do the really edgy, dark rock musical, which I love, but you have to have some kind of neuroses or be desperately in love with someone who doesn't love you.

I don't really like Durang. There's something about absurdism that I don't really connect to, but when I read this play...It has such heart to it and the characters are kooky, but they're real. And they're all going through something relatable.

I feel like every day that I go to rehearsal is like a master class in acting. Watching Chuck [Goad], Diane [Kondrat], Jen [Johansen], Dwandra [Lampkin] and Pete [Lindblom]: they are so talented. Chuck Goad, who plays Vanya, has the best monologue, ever; that's my favorite point in the show. Not to bring up my own character, but she has this line, "You must always get your hopes up," and I think that's a lovely sentiment, not just for myself, but also for this play. Yeah, you're in your fifties and you're not where you thought you would be, but life's not over yet. I think with Durang pieces, there are always character archetypes and my character fulfills one of them: she's the bright light.

Funnily enough, almost every single one of the cast members lived in New York at some point. So they totally understand my plight. I came back here and said, "I was so happy I smelled a skunk!" It's hard because I really love New York; I think it's a great place and a great theater community. I can go see Broadway shows for $5, but at the same time, it's hard to be a working actor. I mostly tell people I'm a server who likes to act on the side.

I've been working professionally for eight years, but I've been doing theater my whole life. We have our community theater in Highland that does one show a year, outside. It's always a disaster because no one can hear anything and there are always people beeping when they drive by, but those are still some of best memories I have.

Indiana State is a great theater school. They don't have a musical theater degree so I kind of made my own path. I just found a voice teacher in the music department who took me on all four years, got a dance minor and majored in acting. It was like trying to do it all - and putting on my own programs of musical theater! But I felt 100 percent prepared when I left, over-prepared sometimes, because you do it yourself. A lot of people who come out of conservatories know their stuff, but they're not always self-motivated to go out there and go to auditions at 4 in the morning and stand in line - and then find out that they're not seeing non-Equity people today.

I can watch a great movie for two hours and feel moved by it, yeah. But then I can go to a theater and have my life changed. I saw Rent when I was 12, on its first national tour. I'd always liked to sing and liked to act, but I saw that and was overwhelmed with possibilities - this is what life could be; you could do this for a living. That's such a theater person thing to say: Rent changed my life. But it's true!


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