Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt. Directed by Michael Greif.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"They all pretended . . . it made me sick."
The children of General Prņzorov, three girls and one boy, have dreams that will die each dawn, unrealized dreams of their own futures both bright and bleak. Adults, orphaned, living in a provincial village far away from the Moscow of their childhood, they long to make a move back to the city with its rich resources and high-tension lifestyles. Mąsha, beautiful, married, bored, is trapped in the village through her marriage to a stuffy, simpleton school teacher. Ņlga, a teacher herself, has the longest of longings for another life, but her attachment to the people around her grounds her. Irina, just twenty in the first act, has the brightest future, the boldest opportunities ahead and her desire for work, for achievements of importance seem to make all things possible. Their brother, Andrči, a philosophical scientist and violinist, is the lynchpin to whom they tie their hopes, but he is ineffectual, socially inept and frightened of life. Or so it seems on stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival where this well-loved play, in a neat, vernacular translation by Paul Schmidt, is making its current appearance.
Surrounding this quartet are the usual suspects in a Chekhov play. We have an aging military doctor who is a drunkard, who rents a room in the Prņzorov household. We have a nobleman without good looks, who is uninspiring but who loves with a simple straightforward manner. We have an angular, angry, hostile young man who displays his adoration with brilliant wit and evil manners. We have an older soldier trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who is both suicidal and controlling. We have a peasant-bred woman with aspirations. There are the usual servants who provide advice, solace and frustration to their "betters." And in this production we have at least thirty more people to present a semblance of townspeople, soldiers, and probably even an American tourist or two.
This is Chekhov country. Birch trees dominate the landscape. Furniture is solid and large. Spaces are filled with rich colors, splashes of stark white, deep black mourning. Everything is in place on the stage at the 62 Center in Williamstown for a first-rate production of this play. Essentially they do not disappoint. Even so, there are a few things that just dont play properly.
The complete depth, height and width of the stage is in use here. There are no limits to the playing area and that dwarfs the people, makes them smaller then they ultimately realize they have become. Allen Moyer, the set designer, has enlarged the world to its extreme and kept the people inside like tiny figures in a snow-globe. This isolation works, to a degree, in highlighting the frustration of the three sisters, but it also swallows voices so that actors cannot be easily heard. It creates a void that is in constant battle with the players on so many levels. He also has designed his rooms in a way that instantly upstages actors, placing people on couches set at right angled to the front of the stage, so that the person upstage cannot be seen or heard by at least half the audience. Why a director would want this, or a producer would allow it, I cannot say. It is a monumental error in design, making fully understanding the play harder than it ought to be.
The company on stage is brilliant. Rosemarie DeWitts Mąsha is the most beautiful, the most bored, the most effulgent human being imaginable. Her voice is lush. Her face well-balanced and bright, her body modern and yet not so very modern. When she falls in love all of these qualities merge into a candle-flare so keen that one squints at her rather than seeing her clearly. Aya Cashs Irina, on the other hand, is more than merely pretty. She is blonde and brazen. She attracts men, is adored and protected by her sisters in just the right proportions. Her performance in the role matches every descriptive applied to the character by Chekhov and his characters. Cash moves back and forth between the honesty and the pathos in this characters makeup. Though still mourning her father, she is the first of the girls to give up black for white, to return to the fullness of life. In Cashs performance this makes sense, for black would not set off her beauty in the way that white does.
As Mąshas husband Kulżgin Jonathan Fried turns in a quirky, fey performance that brings up as many questions about his suitability as a husband as it does his correctness as a teacher. He has taken the oddness in this mans dialogue and philosophy and transformed that into the physical. A wonderful character has become a marvelous one in Frieds hands. Baron Tuzenbach, Irinas principle suitor, is played for all the verve a young man can bring to a role by Keith Nobbs. His rival for her affection, Captain Solyņny, is played with an unusual amount of nastiness by Stephen Kunken. The odd friendship these two men share is brought vividly to life in the Nobbs and Kunkens portrayals and the eventual emotional separation of the two seems even more natural here.
Roberta Maxwell is the ancient servant, Anfisa, and she has a wonderful scene in the second act where fear and understanding come together in her. Cassie Beck, as Natasha, the wife of the Prņzorov son, is beautifully diabolical. She brings a full-bodied sensuality to the role. Michael Cristofer does what he can with the aging doctor, but all too often his voice fell below the level of the background noise and music and his motivations were lost to most of us. Manoel Felciano brings the boyish Andrei to life and we watch that life slowly sap out of him. Its a wonderful trick played by a talented actor. His final appearance in the garden shows us how truly lifeless a married man may be when he understands what has happened to him through his own desire to love and be loved by a wonderful woman.
Colonel Alexander Vershinin, a new old friend for the three sisters, is played with majestic beauty and lusty power by Stevie Ray Dallimore. He completely understand the Russian heroic figure damned by circumstances. As the romantic center of the piece he handles well all of the peculiarity in Chekhovs writing of him: although he loves Mąsha deeply he can only speak of his crazy wife and neglected daughters in her presence. There is in his performance every aspect of the pitiable man with pride and power and an attractiveness that is inescapable.
The unmarried, unmarryable it seems, Ņlga, who also falls for Vershinin just a bit, and Kulżgin just a bit, and her own brother just a bit, is played by Jessica Hecht. Hecht carries much of the weight of this play on her shoulders, opening and closing it with monologues that speak volumes in lines that are weighted with historical importance, romantic information and the heartbreak of frustrated ambitions. She has created a tone for her character, however, that gives the impression that her solitary existence in a crowded family and a crowded home is of her own making. It would seem that she is accustomed to addressing herself as if she was a crowd. We are instantly compelled to be her friend, to listen to her rants, to solace her grief and support her hopes. Among the best, she is the best. This production rides into glory on her shoulders.
Michael Greif, who has directed all of this, has pulled of the nearly impossible. He has made Chekhovs classic into something new. He has fostered images that overcome old memories and created a play on stage that is less "slice-of-life" than life itself. If there is too much background sound, there are also lights by Kenneth Posner that expose interiors and still spot the birch tree surrounds, costumes by Clint Ramos that fit characters like their own skin and music by Michael Friedman that sings the Russian spirit. Greif, supposedly, has coordinated all of these elements in this overlarge space and done wonders. If only we could hear every word, see every character and love the future for these three women it would be a perfect experience. But, like life, nothing is perfect. It is only just this close.
Rosemarie DeWitt as Masha, Aya Cash as Irina, Jessica Hecht as Olga; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Steve Ray Dallimore as Vershinin, Hecht, Manoel Felciano as Andrei; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Hecht, Cash and Roberta Maxwell as Anfisa; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Three Sisters plays at the Williamstown Theater Festival through July 26. Tickets range from $50 - $60. For schedules and ticket information call the box office at 413-597-3400.