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A CurtainUp Review
From the minute one walks into the theater, a split-seat affair with the stage in the middle, the care with which this production was prepared is obvious. Carpets line the far walls of the set (well designed by Troy Hourie), highlighting both the upper class quality and subtle claustrophobia of the home in which the three sisters Olga (Sabrina LeBeauf), Irina (Carmen Gill) and Masha (Amanda Mason Warren) live with their younger brother Andrey (Billy Eugene Jones) and their boarder Chebutykin (Reg E. Cathey). Since the seats are set forward from the back of the room, actors routinely pass behind and through the alley between the two sections on each side (sometimes as family members carrying candles, sometimes as masqueraders playing instruments). So well is the action staged that the audience is quickly drawn into the lives of the Prosorovs almost without being aware of it.
What the viewer is aware of is Chekov's reputation for plumbing the depths of human suffering. With the story of the Prosorovs, which ranges from unhappy marriages to star-crossed love affairs to fires to duels, all set against the backdrop of the three sisters' constant longing for Moscow, Three Sisters doesn't disappoint in this regard. But Chekhov's real genius lies in his ability to represent this suffering in a variety of characters whom it is dangerous to judge too quickly. It's tempting at first, for instance, to dismiss Colonel Vershinin (Roger Guenveur Smith) as an intellectual lightweight more at home spouting philosophical claptrap than truly communicating, but by the play's end his manner has become endearing, while the initial picture of Doctor Chebutykin as a good-hearted, warm soul increasingly gives way to one of a contemptuous and cowardly figure of apathy and cynicism. But Chekhov also knew the difference between tragedy and melodrama, and so violence, loss and disappointment never overwhelm the spirits of the people experiencing them. It's that balance which allows us to feel the sadness without becoming numb to it. It's a balance more modern dramatists would be well-served to learn.
Subtleties abound in the play and fortunately the actors are up to them; there are really no serious holes in the entire cast, and with almost no exceptions the portrayals are totally convincing. Even more minor roles like the self-important teacher Kulygin (Jonathan Earl Peck) or the practically sociopathic soldier Solyony (Phillip Christian) are given appropriate weight by their performers, and some of the more peripheral characters (Josh Tyson's Baron Tuzenbach and Daphne Gaines' Natasha are particularly good examples) are given real stature here.
In the end the real credit for the success of this production has to go to director and CTH co-founder Christopher McElroen, whose interpretive touches are uncannily accurate. McElroen strikes every right note, from intelligent and energetic staging to pacing to coherency of theme, and the result is a truly memorable performance.
I saw a version of Three Sisters years ago in Seattle and found it competent but forgettable; in light of this superb production, though, I think more may have been wrong with that first take than I had ever considered. At his best, Chekhov can tap into the deep truths of humanity as well as any playwright, and this is Chekhov at his best. If you only have time for one work of classic theater this year, make it this one.
Editor's Note: For more about Chekhov and his work, and links to other productions of his plays (including other Three Sisters productions), see our Chekhov Backgrounder.