As improbable as it may sound, the plays of Anton Chekhov are vivid proof that there is such a thing as joyful melancholy. You can commune with his characters’ misfortunes and acknowledge the essential unfairness of life—the lost loves, missed opportunities, the great and petty slights – while gearing up for another day and, yes, another dance. Russian folk music is filled with it – the instantly-recognizable minor key, backed by a sprightly beat that gets your hands clapping and your feet stamping on the floor.
Life may seem pointless, sure, but what’s to cry about? Get on with it, and join the dance!
Jackson Gay’s brilliant production of Three Sisters, currently in simultaneous repertory at Studio Theatre with Aaron Posner’s No Sisters (see John Stollenberg’s review, elsewhere on this website), is filled with light, and boasts a pick-up band of musicians who chime in with a cheerful tune or two just when we need it. Gay’s touch is deft enough that even seasoned Chekhov fans will find new revelations from a drama we think we know by heart; the relationships under her watch are more intense and more visible than I remember from productions past – and believe me, I’ve seen me a few.
For the uninitiated, let me provide a brief summary: Three Sisters follows the fortunes of the Prozorov family children – three sisters Ólga, Másha and Irína, as well as their troubled kid brother Andréy. Born and raised in Moscow, all of them miss the big city and each is stifled, in her or his own way, within the confines of the small village where their military officer father was once stationed. The action, spaced out over the course of four years, traces their several desperate paths.
The only thing approximating Moscow high-society comes in the form of military officers, nearly all of whom are smitten with the youngest sister Irína. As the action opens, it becomes clear that even the elder army doctor Chebutýkin, who once carried a flame for the girls’ mother, has his eyes on the debutante. While young Irina fends off suitors, the middle sister Másha, bored to tears by her husband (the local Latin teacher, Kulýgin), takes up with a colonel, Vershínin, who is trapped in his own loveless marriage. Vershínin and Másha both know that divorce and remarriage are unthinkable (this is Russia, early 1900’s, after all), and their desperation is matched by their hopelessness.
The Prozorov sisters’ discontent is made more severe by the entrance of local girl Natásha, who has won the heart of Andréy. Awkward at first, once she becomes their sister-in-law her intention to rule the household with an iron fist becomes painfully clear. Throughout this soap opera the eldest sister, Ólga, unmarried, stoically carries on her duties at the local school and watches helplessly as the lives around her are ruined.
Dan Conway’s setting anchors the bright tone of Gay’s production, with its slender birch trees and light-toned birch panels, and Jesse Belsky’s lights enhance the brightness of the Prozorov house—which only serves, of course, to heighten the misery of those who live in it. Composer James Barry, meanwhile, provides the musicians—a band including members of the cast!—with just the right spirit of Russian playfulness.
The prize, however, goes to costumer Jessica Ford, whose eye for color and texture communicate the rise and fall in fortune of the central characters. Ford’s work with Natásha is especially remarkable, vividly telling the story of her rise from awkward local yokel to fierce harpy. When we first meet her, the clash of pastel tones and plain-ness of fabric communicate her awkwardness—especially when contrasted with Irína’s brilliant, tasteful white; by the end of the play it is Irina whose colors are subdued, while Natasha’s lush velvet gown attests to her newfound dominance of the family estate – if not the whole village itself.
The casting for Three Sisters is generally solid, with gems that emerge over the course of the action: Bridget Flanery’s Ólga is discreetly compelling, and as Másha, Caroline Hewitt brilliantly captures the desperation and self-destructiveness of a woman trapped by her own choices.
Much of the action centers on Irína and her emotional barrenness, a lack that is foregrounded each time a suitor proclaims his undying love for her. Emilie Krause’s turn in this role is unforgettable, and Gay ensures that Krause has the time to reveal Irína’s helplessness—along with her fatal self-absorption. In the end it is Irína’s utter lack of empathy that is her ultimate undoing, and the undoing of those who love her most.
What makes Kimberly Gilbert’s Natásha such a revelation here, and for me the highlight of the production, is the way that her early, awkward persona in Act 1 converts, step by step, to absolute hell-on-wheels domination by the drama’s end. Her rebuke of the family’s nurse Anfísa (played with gentle sympathy by Nancy Robinette) is as shocking as it is powerful, and the way she plans the lives of all around her is coldly calculating.
The men in the cast – did I mention there are a few guys, too? – manage the delicate task of asserting their dignity, even as Chekhov utterly undermines each one of them in turn. Ryan Rilette’s Andréy has his own issues with self-absorption, and the damage done by his obsession with academic work is entirely self-inflicted. His slow realization of Natásha’s betrayal is something to watch; by contrast, Todd Scofield provides ample comic relief as Másha’s insufferable husband Kulýgin. Scofield’s schoolmaster is always handy with a Latin bon mot (which, of course, nobody understands), and his cheerful denial of reality is of a piece with the personality of a local “legend in his own mind.”
Greg Stuhr is solid as colonel Vershínin, who cuts a dashing figure in black uniform; but it is with this character that directors face their biggest dilemma. A modern audience might think of a full-blown affair between Vershínin and Másha as natural, and Gay seems to be in this camp; but there is something to be said for their passion to remain un-consummated. After all, if they’ve had a round or three in the sack their final parting is much less compelling to watch than if they both, out of dutiful observance of Russia’s social norms, restrain their physical passions.
(Because I haven’t yet seen Posner’s companion piece, No Sisters, I’m not sure whether this choice was influenced by the contemporary interpretation of the play being offered upstairs).
As for the rest of the officer corps – decked out by Ford in friendly, light olive green – we find a variety of recognizable characters, each of whom has his charm. Craig Wallace presides over the crew as Chebutýkin the older army doctor who has long since reconciled himself to a solitary life devoid of accomplishment. Wallace’s philosophical resignation contrasts sharply with the slow burn of Solyóny, one of Irína’s suitors; played here with subtle passion by Biko Eisen-Martin, this dour, young poetry-spouting captain seems comical at first but soon reveals a menace and nihilism that casts the ultimate shadow over the action. His opposite, and the chief competition for Irina’s hand in marriage, is Baron Túzenbach, given a charming and sympathetic turn by Ro Boddie. For all the focus on the Prozorov sisters it is Túzenbach who is the tragic figure here, and his desperation for Irína’s affection, for even a kind word, is heart-wrenching here thanks to Boddie’s performance.
Naturally the conceit of having two plays, Three Sisters and No Sisters performed simultaneously upstairs and downstairs, sounds like a marketer’s dream. But it is important for each production to stand on its own merits. Jackson Gay’s Three Sisters more than lives up to the tradition of Chekhov productions at the Studio, and her steady, mature hand is one I hope to see more often on Washington’s stages.
Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Three Sisters plays in rep with No Sisters through April 23, 2017, at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.
Review: No Sisters at The Studio Theatre by John Stoltenberg.
Review: Three Sisters at The StudIo Theatre by Andrew Walker White.