July 17, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
… be assured that The Three Sisters at Williamstown is a haunting experience you may never forget. Theatre can’t get any better than that!
Anton Chekhov is undeniably unique and the four masterpieces (five if one includes Ivanov) he composed during his brief life have inspired the course of contemporary theatre for more than a century.
His plays are beautiful ones, comedies he called them, but poignant, full of love and yearning, orchestrated by subtle recurring themes that weave through their four act structure.
Birch trees are almost their signature. And they are large cast plays of a dozen actors. But ideally with no “stars.” Each is part of an ensemble and has a fully developed off-stage life—one full of memories, dreams, hope and fears And each too, no matter the size of his role has a “moment,” a time in which one can identify with the angst of the buried life.
Because the plays are so uniquely crafted, although they are frequently produced, the true Chekhov spirit must be in the bones of the director.
It is therefore absolutely joyous to announce that Michael Greif’s production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters now playing on the Williamstown Theatre Festival stage is magnificently cast, intuitive, compassionate and deeply moving.
There is so much to praise in this production that a brief review cannot adequately cover all, that makes (as is evident) “where to begin” a problem.
But even there the director has helped us, adding no new words to Paul Schmidt’s excellent translation, but a wordless musical prologue in which for the only time in the play we are clearly in the yearned for Moscow of years ago and the three young girls in white dresses whirl briefly among the dancers and uniformed soldiers. A brief glimpse of innocent delight and joy. In Moscow.
Moscow. The word threads the play. In the first act (set in the dull provincial town) the word is evoked more than a dozen times. (It will weave through all the acts, its use diminishing as hope diminishes until in the final act only Ferapont, (Peter Maloney) the deaf old servant, who has never been there will mention the place, one in his mind confused with St Petersburg, another place about which he knows nothing.
As the first act opens, the sun is shining. It is the name day of Irina, (Aya Cash) youngest of the sisters, only 20 and having spent the last eleven years of her life in the provincial town. Wearing white, she is radiant with the hope that after a year of mourning for the brigade commander father whose career appointment has exiled them from their beloved former home, they can now go back.
Surely now brother Andrei (Manoel Felciano) better educated than even Irina and her sisters who all know German, English and French, with she even knowing some Italian as well) can become a professor and take them all to Moscow.
Masha, (Rosemarie DeWitt) unfortunately married a pedantic local teacher and whose sense of defeat is present in her black dress, will spend weeks visiting them. And Olga, (Jessica Hunt) beautifully cast as one who at 29, feeling spinsterhood, is still young of body, beautiful of face, and full of love for her two sisters.
It is in this great bonding of the sisters that another thread of this production weaves through the play, the closeness that three motherless girls, not widely separated by age, have always had. That will be so vividly present as they navigate the troubled acts of the play in which hope diminishes. That breaks the heart as, their arms around each other, they “accept” and even hope (for others) in the final act.
Meanwhile, in the first act, the scene is bright as other characters assemble for the name day celebration. Cherbutykin (Michael Cristofer) the old doctor, who once loved the sisters’ mother appears with his costly inappropriate gift of a silver samovar.
Vershinin, (Stevie Ray Dallimore) the new battery commander, not only is brought to be introduced but his having recently come from Moscow, and his engaging talk about his unfortunate wife and children, etc suddenly waken the brooding Masha who announces, “I’ll stay to dinner.” And sets in motion the Vershinin/ Masha theme that will weave, with whistling, and melody the words that haunt Masha, “A green oak grows by a curving stone. And on that oak hangs a gold chain.”
So the dinner party grows as more young cadets are added to the party Tuzenback (Keith Nobbs) and Solyony (Stephen Kulken) two rivals for Irina’s love; and a couple of young soldiers bringing childish toys and a camera for a group photo.
The moment is the happiest the play can reach. For just at the end of the first act enters the woman who will doom any happiness – Natasha (Cassie Beck), a vulgar, uneducated local girl who, enamering Andrei will eventually devour all before her.
The casting of all in the play is superb. Natasha is, as she should be, taller, broader, coarser looking, annoyingly speaking. The sisters, despite disappointments, are ever supple and, though wounded, charming and loving.
Having introduced his characters in the first act, Chekov lets them play their hearts out in the scenes that follow. Although probably most in the audience know the plot, I save it unspoiled for those few who may experience its unwinding for the first time.
Each will take home a moment he/she can never forget be it only Irina in Act 3 suddenly exclaiming, “I have forgotten the Italian for window and ceiling!” Or Masha’s pedantic but well-meaning husband telling her she is a good girl. Or Olga and Irina on twin cots shoved from their room by space for “Bobik” or “Sophia.”
The beautiful home designed by Allen Moyer will have been gobbled up by Natasha by the play’s end and she cannot wait to get at the trees. However in Chekhov, life goes on it … and does.
After-note: If you are haunted by Andrei and that baby carriage in the final scene of the play, you might want to know that so was Brian Friel, the Irish playwright who has adapted several Chekhov plays for the theatres in Dublin. His affinity for Chekhov is strong and in 2002 he wrote and produced Afterplay in which one can meet Andrei 20 years later, finally in Moscow. It too will break your heart, but it is a lovely two-character play.
Published by the Gallery Press (in Ireland) in a volume called Three Plays After but also obtainable on our side of the Atlantic. I picked up my copy at the bookstore of the Shaw Festival, read it flying home, and keep it next to The Three Sisters on my Chekhov shelf.
Meanwhile, be assured that The Three Sisters at Williamstown is a haunting experience you may never forget. Theatre can’t get any better than that!