Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Lucy Caldwell. Directed by Christopher McCann. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Allen McCullough (Vershinin) Monique Vukovic (Orla) and Oliver Wadsworth (DJ Cool); photo: Angus McCullough
"Happiness belongs to the future - to the generations unborn."
Xingrong Chen (Sui Jen), Jay Reum (Andy); photoL Angus McCullough
Living Room Theatre, a boutique Equity company of New York professionals in North Bennington, Vermont, entering its seventh season concentrating on classics (Chekhov, Shaw, Strindberg) is presenting the U.S. première of Lucy Caldwell’s Irish adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” set in Belfast in the 1990s at the end of the Troubles. This is a unique take on a well-known Russian drama about longing, ecstasy, and the anxiety of women trapped in a society that doesn't suit them. Taking a risk with one of the most popular plays written in the 20th century Caldwell has fashioned a play that is both true to the original and still manages to be relevant to the time and place in which she has set her play. There is nothing radically new about the story, or the characters, other than the setting and the circumstances - a fire is replaced by a rebelious attack on the city, for example, but this adaptation manages to sound original and is an arresting experience in the hands of some very talented people.
Covering a period of five years (1993 to 1998) it is the tale of the growth of three women and their brother, Orla, Marianne, Andy and Erin, maturing into responsible adults during a period of tumultuous political upheavel in Ireland. Marianne is married to David, known as DJ Cool, who is a very popular radio disc jockey personality. Andy is about to marry Sui Jen, an Asian woman who is disliked by all three sisters. Erin is turning eighteen at the beginning of the play and Orla oversees the family's troubles in the time of the Troubles, trying to keep them all on an even keel. Enter three men, Simon - a bombastic political renegade, Baron, a gentleman with a sense of loyalty and Alex Vershinin, an old friend of the now dead father of the siblings. Their effect on the family is at the core of the drama in this story.
Sui Jen, as played by Chinese actress Xingrong Chen, is a stern, controlling woman whose culture informs her attitudes and her relationships. Her beauty holds Andy in her thrall, but her attitude destroys any sense of family harmony. Chen is sometimes hard to understand as she chatters on rapidly, but when she takes control of situations in a deliberate fashion she is simply devastating. As her husband, Andy, Jay Reum plays weakness as a strength. He is never a whiner, but his demeanor is that of a mouse rather than a man. He is wonderful portraying a female dominated male who regrets his own decisions and resents those of his sisters. Not quite sympathetic, he is nevertheless a tragic hero, a man who cannot act on his own behalf after taking that exact step in marrying outside the family's wishes.
Kario Marcel as Simon; photo: Angus McCullough
As his sister Marianne, the show's producer Randolyn Zinn stepped in, script in hand, for ailing actress Hannah Beck and blew the exquisite roof of the carriagehouse at the Park -McCulough House right off. Her performance of the wife who finds a soul-mate was just wonderful and emotionally charged and dynamic. Her interactions with her husband DJ, played with delicate grace by Oliver Wadsworth were perfect. He brought the charm of the Irishman into play, declaring his undying love for the woman who would leave him for a married man. His consternation at not being able to locate her was real, so was his well-armed delight at being able to escort her home after one of her tumultuous break-downs. These two certainly played well together.
Erin, the childish, peevish sister who grows up into a maturity she never wishes to have, was played by Oona Roche who started out loudly petulant and ended up moderately emotional. Roche was very good, though never totally engaging in spite of being pursued by two men, Simon and Baron who ultimately fight a duel with pistols over her on the eve of her wedding. One of them, the boisterous Simon, played with true gusto by Kario Marcel, was ever-intrusive and totally engaging.
The third "contender" for her affection was Beattie, a family friend of a certain age, who drinks too much, sings too often and generally makes himself unwelcome though manages to remain a close and intimate friend of the family. As played by Kirk Jackson, Beattie remains a continual source of off-the-wall wisdom which always leads to another person's conclusion about a problem. Jackson does the drunk scene in Act Three brilliantly. He also maintains his accent through every aspect of his performance, drunk or sober, singing or talking, joking or serioius. It is a wonderful performance.
Mike Broadhurst (Baron); photo: Angus McCullough
The man Erin seems fated to marry is the Baron, beautifully played by Mike Broadhurst. This actor knows what his face can do to underscore words, highlight emotions, or express his feelings on another man's opinions when words will not suffice. His playing here was touching and emotionally a highpoint in the production.
The third sister, the eldest, Orla, was played by Monique Vukovic. She is the prettiest of the sisters, the one devotedly unmarried, the one with the strongest urges to leave Belfast for America. Vukovic handled herself extremely well in every situation, seemingly growing lovelier through the play as her spinsterhood seemed more and more assured, almost a physical challenge to the men and women in the district to outdo her in single blessedness.
Still, with all this good work going on, it fell to Allen McCullough as Vershinin to elevate the production towards greatness. Vershinin is an old family friend who remembers the sisters as children and rediscovers them during his five year stint in the neighborhood. He falls in love with Marianne, and though married and a father to two little girls, he woos her, wins her affection and gives her life a relevance she has missed in her own marriage. McCullough's voice is like heavy cotton drawn across the strings of a double bass. There is the absolute romantic in his movements and his looks and tone. He has almost the same effect on the audience that his Vershinin has on the middle sister. It is hard to take your eyes off of him when he's on stage, impossible to ignore even the smallest word he utters. McCullough is the absolute when it comes to romantic figure on stage.
This wonderful company, in this remarkable space they have to work in, moves the audience, not only with words and actions, but by shifting the audience from place to place in the building. It brings us into the picture, as neighbors and friends, in the oddest way. This particularly true in the intimate third act when the house is filled with neighbors taking refuge from the troubles. I loved the way this worked and almost envy the Living Room Theatre for taking the concept of intimate theater to this lively extreme.
Christopher McCann has done wonderful work directing this show, obviously. I have seen a dozen productions of Chekhov's play, some masterful, some miserable, but this time around - in this very modern setting and with accents thicker than marmalade - it had a resonance that hit very close to home. Contemporary politics aside if that is even possible the yearning for a better place with fewer "troubles" and the universal longing for a soul-mate rather than a bed-mate kept this production alive from start to finish for more than two and a half hours.
Comhghairdeas to the company! I wish I'd seen it earlier in its twelve performance run.
Three Sisters continues its run through August 18 in the carriage house at the Historic Park-McCullough House, 1 Park Street, North Bennington, VT. For information and tickets go to lrtvt.org.