Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2008
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you are either a Chekhov person, or you are not. There is no shame if you are not, although I feel very sorry for people who don’t get the enjoyment I do out of his works. If you are a Chekhov person, you will just love Michael Greif’s breathtaking and expansive production of Paul Schmidt’s translation of “Three Sisters” currently on the Main Stage at the WTF. But if you are not a Chekhov person, I think you had better stay home because this is very Chekhovian Chekhov.
At intermission one friend, who was not a Chekhov person, said to me, “I keep waiting for something to happen.” I told her she was waiting in vain because nothing will happen – and everything will happen – to Ňlga and Mŕsha and Irina, just the way it does in real life. Chekhov is the theatrical version of Seinfeld, with only slightly fewer laughs.
We are used to going to the theatre and seeing a fairly predictable story arc. We are introduced to character and situation and then the action builds to a climax after which there is catharsis and we all go home. That is not how real life works. Some days everything happens and most days nothing happens, which is how we creatures of habit like it best, and imperceptibly time passes and our lives end.
There are two deeply troubling aspects to being alive: one is the unshakeable knowledge that it will end and the other is the absolute inability to truly connect with another. Even the most intimate bonds – lovers, spouses, parent and child, siblings – are mere illusions, imagined fulfillments of our desperate longing not to be alone. The Prňzorov sisters literally physically cling to each other for support as their lives progress, but even their genetic similarities and their physical proximity is no cure for the isolation of human existence.
I recommend to you Dramaturg Liana Thompson’s program notes about Chekhov and the subject of longing. The Prňzorov sisters are full of unfulfilled longings – most famously to leave their rural home and return to Moscow – but also for love, for intellectual fulfillment, and for a sense of purpose. Not surprisingly, they are surrounded by people with similar needs, fears and frustrations. The daughters of a General, who has been dead exactly a year when the play begins, Ňlga (Jessica Hecht), Mŕsha (Rosemarie DeWitt), and Irina (Aya Cash), and their brother Andrči (Manoel Feliciano) were raised in Moscow but have been living for the past eleven years in a rural garrison town. Their friends are almost all military men, but Mŕsha is married to a teacher, Theodore Kulýgin (Jonathan Fried) and Andrči is in love with, and eventually marries, Natŕsha (Cassie Beck), a bourgeois local girl.
At the beginning of the play it is Irina’s 20th birthday (in other translations it is referred to has her “name day,” a very different celebration in Russian culture but one unfamiliar to modern audiences). Mŕsha is a year older and has been married since she was 18. Ňlga is 28 and is, and remains, unmarried. By the end of the play about five years have passed and nothing that the sisters long for has come to pass.
Irina is a sought after young lady, being courted by both a lieutenant, Baron Tůzenbach (Keith Nobbs), a short and physically unappealing young man with avid socialist leanings, and the moody and dangerous Captain Vasily Solyňny (Stephen Kunken). Mŕsha is passionately in love with the unhappily married Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vershěnin (Stevie Ray Dallimore), whose unseen wife repeatedly attempts suicide.
An army doctor, Ivan Chebutýkin (Michael Cristofer), is an old friend of the family. Now in his sixties and inclined to drink, he and was deeply in love with the sisters’ late mother. Chekhov, who was himself a doctor, gives to the character of Chebutýkin his deepest thoughts and fears on the fragility and puzzlement of life, and Cristofer plays them nicely.
While they are three excellent actresses, Hecht, DeWitt, and Cash do not really look like they could be sisters. Hecht is tall, dark, and gangly; DeWitt is fine-boned and brooding; while Cash is a pert little blonde. They each delineate their characters clearly, aided by Clint Ramos’ evocative costumes.
Hecht is my idea of a perfect Chekhov heroine – straight and strong as a tree, fragile as a butterfly, and heart-breakingly funny. Her Ňlga is all-embracing with a warm smile, welcoming all comers to her father’s house because she needs them so and fears to be alone.
By contrast DeWitt’s Mŕsha is perpetually in mourning (she literally always wears black) for her lost parents, her mistaken marriage, and her anguished, hopeless love for Vershěnin. Dallimore matches her anguish-for-anguish.
Cash renders Irina barely able to stand firm in the face of a life time of work.
Beck is a truly loathsome and self-centered Natasha, but you understand what Andrči sees in her. She is pretty and bubbly and so unlike his sisters, who must be very like their mother.
During the course of the play Andrči goes from a young man full of promise and ambition to a henpecked husband with an unfaithful and cruel wife bent on usurping his sisters’ social status and inheritance, and unmanageable gambling debts which have forced him to mortgage the house. He is the truly tragic figure in the play and Feliciano plays him with agonizing ordinariness.
Fried and Knobbs provide much of the comic relief. Vain, foolish Kulýgin and the determined little Baron are very different men, but beautifully drawn characters – they are types we still meet today. I enjoyed Knobbs in his rivalry with Kunken for Irina’s affections. Kunken renders Captain Solyňny as a frightening presence right from the start. Fried was affecting in his final scene with Hecht and DeWitt.
It just wouldn’t be a Chekhov play without a couple of elderly servants, and here they are nicely played by Peter Maloney, as the deaf-when-it-suits-him-to-be Ferapont, and the talented Roberta Maxwell, who played Ňlga the last time the WTF staged this play in 1987, as Anfisa, the Prňzorovs’ aging nanny.
I cannot begin to describe how dramatic and beautiful this production looks. The design team - Allen Moyer, sets, Kenneth Posner, lights, and Clint Ramos, costumes – has created an environment that is utterly unrealistic and yet a totally convincing reality at the same time. The cavernous Main Stage is opened to its deepest and widest and a “birch forest” of enormous white papery cylinders hang all around the moveable blonde wood units that slide in or glide down to form interior and exterior spaces. I staircase stage left descends to other parts of the Prňzorov house. It is concealed for Act IV, which takes place out of doors, and instead a pathway is carved through the birches (so much taller and wider in diameter than any real birch trees) and a broad-seated swing descends, along with a carpet of red/gold leaves (yes, I know birch leaves turn yellow, but this is a stage picture, not reality.)
The sets dwarf the actors, making their minor human pains and problems seem that much more insignificant, while at the same time Greif has the performers make much of their woes. In the 1987 WTF production, directed and adapted by the late Nikos Psacharopoulos, I remember much less set and many more laughs. This production is more heart-wenching and surreal.
Greif has assembled quite a large group of extras, some of them local folks, to dance at the opening of the show while the birch trees move to the back and the living room of the Prňzorov house is assembled. The scene was colorful and the Michael Friedman’s music, performed live on stage is true to the location and period. I was happy to catch glimpses of a couple of friends and assumed that the group would come on to dance again during later set changes to help set the mood and season, much the way Julianne Boyd had used music and movement to change the scenes in her 2007 production of Uncle Vanya. But no. This group, all in costume, appeared just that once and then sat backstage for two hours until they were allowed to bounce down to the footlights for a curtain call. Huh? What a waste of a good bunch of people.
Three Sisters runs through July 27 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008