Yale Rep's 'Three Sisters' sparkles in its melancholy
NEW HAVEN - If done wrong, Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters’’ can verge on self-parody or bear an uncomfortable resemblance to certain scenes from “Love and Death,’’ Woody Allen’s spoof of the Russian literary masters.
If done right, as in the incisive and well-acted production at Yale Repertory Theatre directed by Les Waters, “Three Sisters’’ reminds us that few writers have ever seen into the human soul with more acuity and understanding than Chekhov.
For this new version of the classic drama about the Prozorov sisters, stuck in a provincial town and longing for Moscow (or, as they would put it: Moscow!), Waters has teamed up with one of the most original playwrights of our time, Sarah Ruhl.
However, anyone hoping to hear Ruhl’s idiosyncratic voice, the one that made “Dead Man’s Cell Phone’’ or “In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)’’ such distinctive delights, will be disappointed. Her overriding goal was fidelity to the original text, as Ruhl makes clear in an introduction to the program that begins: “I came to this translation with no agenda, no desire to bend Chekhov to my will in any way, but instead, to learn from him.’’
Waters and the cast take an equally straightforward approach. There is no attempt to contemporize Chekhov, or to hijack his words in the service of any vision other than the playwright’s.
The Prozorov sisters - Irina (Heather Wood), Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson), and Masha (Natalia Payne) - spent what they recall as an idyllic childhood in Moscow. But now they have grown to disillusioned adulthood and live far from Moscow. Olga works punishingly long hours as a schoolteacher, Masha is unhappily married, and Irina, the youngest, is clinging to the hope that if she finds a job, the simple act of daily labor will give her life meaning. “For us, three sisters, life has not been beautiful - it chokes us, like weeds,’’ says Irina.
The inchoate dream of one day returning to Moscow has come to represent their last shot at happiness. As they gather for Irina’s birthday party in the Prozorov home, it has been exactly one year since the death of their father, a high-ranking military officer. The sisters now pin most of the family’s hopes on their brother, Andrei (Alex Moggridge), whom they envision as a university professor. But the skittish Andrei seems a pretty leaky vessel for those hopes, and in any case his attentions are primarily focused on his fiancée, Natasha (Emily Kitchens), who is socially awkward and insecure (though that will change, big-time).
While the sisters’ social orbit has contracted since their father’s death, it is still populated by vivid characters. There is Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan), a baron and lieutenant in the local regiment, who hopes to win Irina’s hand despite his unprepossessing appearance, and Solyony (Sam Breslin Wright), an exceedingly creepy staff captain who is also in love with Irina and is openly hostile to the baron. There is Chebutykin (James Carpenter), an army doctor and longtime friend of the family who is trying to keep his drinking problem under control, and Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie), the regiment’s new commanding officer, who is stuck in a miserable marriage and is soon drawn into a passionate love affair with Masha.
Because no one seems able to so much as raise a teacup in “Three Sisters’’ without launching into a lengthy philosophical disquisition, some parts of the play could come across to today’s audiences as merely lugubrious, or even faintly risible, if actors deliver their lines too portentously. But Waters has taken pains to ensure that the performances remain grounded in the particulars of each character, so the sisters and their friends register as real people who are grappling with the difficulties and disappointments of existence.
Scene by scene, the Yale Rep’s “Three Sisters’’ adds up to a compelling group portrait of characters who, in ways large and small, try to escape the limitations life has imposed on them. That they are ultimately unable to do so is presented less as a cause for despair than as a simple and profound statement that this is the way things are.
By the end of “Three Sisters,’’ the Prozorovs are no closer to Moscow than they were at the beginning. But Chekhov leaves us with the sense that, heartbroken though they are, the sisters may be starting a journey of a different kind.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.