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A CurtainUp Review
Three Sisters

There will come a time when everybody will know why, for what purpose, there is all this suffering, and there will be no more mysteries. But now we must live. . . we must work, just work!— -Irina
Three Sisters
Sabrina LeBeauf in Three Sisters
(Photo: Troy Hourie)
At times Anton Chekhov almost seems to be great in spite of himself. Never the most realistic of dialogue writers, sometimes more content to let his characters wander through philosophical musings than truly interact with each other, it's occasionally tempting to wonder if his meditations on the difficulties of the Russian upper classes at the turn of the twentieth century can still resonate. But given a little bit of time and attention, the force of Chekhov's work begins to tell—even more when given a great production. And although three other productions of his plays have gone up in New York over the past several months, it's hard to imagine a better one than the Classical Theatre of Harlem's Three Sisters at Harlem Stage.

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.

Three Sisters
Anton Chekhov
Director: Christopher McElroen
Cast: Chanel Carroll (Parlor Maid), Reg E. Cathey (Chebutykin), Phillip Christian (Solyony), Nathan Dame (Rode), Carmen de Lavallade (Anfisa), Daphne Gaines (Natasha), Carmen Gill (Irina), Earle Hyman (Ferapont), Lisa Johanson (House Staff / Violinist), Billy Eugene Jones (Andrey), Anthony Laylor (Soldier), Sabrina LeBeauf (Olga), Jonathan Earl Peck (Kulygin), Johnny Ramey (Fedotik), Roger Guenveur Smith (Vershinin), Josh Tyson (Tuzenbach), Amanda Mason Warren (Masha)
Set Design: Troy Hourie
Costume Design: Kimberly Glennon
Lighting Design: Aaron Black
Composer, Music Consultant: Alexander Sovronsky
Running time: Two hours, forty-five minutes (includes one fifteen minute intermission)
Harlem Stage Gatehouse, 150 Convent Avenue at West 135th St., (212) 281-9240, ext. 19/20
From 2/05/09 to 3/08/09; opening 2/18/09
Wed. — Sat. @ 7:30 p.m., Sun. @ 3 p.m.
Tickets: $40
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on February 13th press performance
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