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A CurtainUp Feature
Chekhov: Father of the 3-Sisters Play
By Elyse Sommer
As it's infinitely better to have one child or grandchild than none, so it's better to have one sister than none. Still, being part of a trio always struck me as special. Playwrights too seem to be drawn to sister trios and have used the lives of and interactions between three sisters as their plot foundations. These plays aren't copycat versions of Chekhov's still much produced The Three Sisters. That play still retains its status as the granddaddy and most frequently produced of these 3-sister plays. To prove it, we've reviewed a dozen productions.
Here are a few playwrights who've created their own trio of siblings and story lines to go with them. Some have won Pulitzers, but none have, so far, achieved the durability of Chekhov's sister play.
Richard Nelson's Apple Sisters
Richard Nelson's event-specific plays about the Apple Family of Rhinebeck, New York, was deliberately intended to evoke the Chekhovian model. Like the Prozhov sisters, the Apples — two teachers and a writer — have a brother. While they too live in a quiet little town, it's a lot closer to the culture and excitement of New York than the idealized Moscow. But here's where Nelson parts ways with Chekhov: The Apples love Rhinebeck and don't yearn for the big city life. They have their share of disappointments (failed marriages, a beloved uncle with dimentia, death), but life in Rhinebeck is very much to their liking. In fact, in the final play, Regular Singing, the youngest sister, a free lance writer, has left Manhattan with her boyfriend to live in Rhineback and all three sisters would like brother Richard to join them.
The naturalistic acting and use of a pivotal event to drive the plot of each play works well with Nelson's quiet style and turned the Public Theater's in-repertory production of all four plays a major success.
< For a link to Regular Singing and its predecessors: go here.
For August: Osage County's Sisters Leaving their Stifling Environment Has Not Brought Happiness
Unlike the Russian siblings who yearned to go back to the happy times and place of their youth, the Weston sisters' youth was a hotbed of dysfunction, a place to escape from.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Tracy Letts used the popular device of a family crisis for a reunion at the homestead. It's soon clear that Osage County, Oklahoma though hardly a stimulating, lively environment, is not the real culprit here. The place may exacerbate the familial dysfunction, but it's the people who have poisoned the well.
Violet and Beverly Weston have survived hardscrabble depression childhoods, but the emotional fall out has infected their spacious home and marriage and Violet's terminal cancer has made life literally unbearable. Beverly disappears. Violet summons her daughters from their various "Moscows." The resulting unspooling of regrets and despair makes these sisters' story more akin to Eugene O'Neill's and Tennessee Williams's dysfunctional family dramas, than Chekhov's. Here are links to the reviews of the play and the film adaptation August: Osage County, the movie . . .August: Osage County, the play .
Brian Friel's Donegal County Sisters Are More Closely Patterend on the Prozovs than the Westons
Brian Friel's Aristocrats is as Irish as can be. Yet, it's the closest of all these sister plays to Chekhov's classic. Friel created a melancholy yet often funny picture of a once wealthy landowning family as well as some outsiders closely involved with them.
Like so many family plays Aristocrats is structured around a reunion, in this case for the wedding of Claire, the youngest sister. A joyous occasion, right? Wrong. It takes just minutes to see that this family has plenty of emotional and economic problems.
Revivals of Aristocrats are rare and not to be missed. For a link to our review of the Irish Rep Theater's excellent production in 2009, ristocrats09.html
Wendy Wassersteins Trio of Uncommon Women With Sibling Bonds
The late Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosenwweig premiered at Lincoln Center four years'before Curtainup's launch. The promotional images for that opening were quite obviously designed to link these accomplished and devoted Jewish siblings to Chekhov's Russians who never had their opportunity to live uncommon lives.
The setup is again a reunion, in this case to celebrate the oldest sister Sara's fifty-fourth Birthday. Sara is an overachiever, the only woman ever to head an international Hong Kong bank. Gorgeous, the middle sister is a triple threat — housewife, mother and radio personality." Pfeni, nee Penny, is a globe-trotting journalist.
Clearly each member of this family has achieved the sort of life their Russian counterparts dream about. Naturally, it wouldn't be a play without problems, and the problem for each of these somen is their difficulty with men. While Wasserstein's 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning The Heidi Chronicles has had its fair share of revivals, the Sisters Rosensweig have not had the extended stage life of the Sisters Prozov.
The Magrath Sisters of Hazelhurst, Mississipi Here's another Pulitzer winner, this one Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart. Like so many dysfunctional family dramas this one warrants a "melo" prefix. Like the Westons, the Magraths still bear the scars of their traumatic family history. With one sister having just shot her husband, the play starts off in full melodramatic mode.
Despite notable casts, neither a New York or Williamstown Theatre Festival revival I saw struck me as a great contribution to either the dysfunctional family or 3-sister play genre.
Three More Sisters Reunited For a Funeral Te chief mourners in British playwright Sheila Stephenson's first play, Memory of Water, have little in common except the unhealthy legacy of the mother they've come to bury. Given that occasions like this tend to throw already tense relationships into a dither and prompt extremes of behavior, the author adds her penchant to make everything come out funny. Consequently, what basically fell under the rubrik of a tragedy about three sisters, better fits the portmanteau genre of dramedy.
Though not often seen on stage, we did manage to take in two productions, one in New York and a more recent one in the Berkshires
Horton Foote's Sisters Re-live Family History Witout Actually meeting
No Chekhovian image of three sisters in Horton Foote's Carpetbagger. The Thompson sisters recollect their family's history in the town of Harrison, Texas (Foote's usual surrogate for his own home town of Wharton).
Actually the Thompsons started out as a quartet, but their beloved sister Beth is gone, as is their father, a Union soldier who returned to Harrison after the Civil War as a carpetbagger. Like the Prozovs they have a brother, albeit an ill-fortuned one. He's still around as is their heard-but-not-seen mother, now suffering from Alzheimer's.
As Tracy Letts's August: Osage County has more in common with O'Neill and Williams than Chekhov, so Carpetbagger's monologue structure with none of the speakers ever actually interacting makes for a closer connection to Conor McPherson than Chekhov. For a link to our review of a 2002 production gohere.
Charles Mee's Singles out 3 Sisters to Reinterpret Aeschylus Aeschylus's The Suppliant Women, actually involved fifty brides, but Mee's intepretation reduced that to three, and made that threesome sisters. The women flee Greece and their assigned grooms Aeschylus's fifty brides, fleeing Greece and their fifty assigned grooms. The three grooms pursue them to Italy so Big Love could also be deemed a fun variation of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. ( review). Mee's play points to the fact that Chekhov may himself have been influenced by the Greeks — most specifically Sophocles Electra and hers sisters Iphigeneia and Chrysothemis. and their brother Orestes.
In See Rock City the Sister Sing Another set of sisters saying a final farewell to a parent. Brad Alexander and Adam Mathias have made it a musical farewell with 3 sisters going to Alaska to scatter their father's ashes. The musical connection is closes to Gilbert and Sullivan. Of course, sister trios have been a vital part of popular music history
Of course sister trios are not limited to plays. The Andrews Sisters were a household word for years. The Shaggs were actually subject of a play entitled The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.
Prolific playwright Theresa Rebeck never penned a 3-sisters play, but her first outing as a novelist defined its modus operandi with the title Three Girls and a Brother . Actually her sibling source was not the Prozovs but the gossip headline making Hilton Sisters.
Now that invitrio fertilization has upped the triplets population, we're likely to see more 3-sister dramas. But my bet's on Anton's The Three Sisters to continue it's hold as the best and most memorable.
For links to our reviews of The Three Sisters, see our Chekov Backgrounder