‘The Three Sisters’ as Sweeping, Contemporary Epic
By: Isa Goldberg
Trapped in a small town and an unhappy marriage, Masha (Maggie Gyllenhaal) falls in love with Vershinin (Peter Sarsgaard), a soldier whose wife suffers from chronic illness. Olga (Jessica Hecht), Masha’s older sister, is a spinster with no life outside of the school where she works. The youngest sister, Irina (Juliet Rylance), dreams of going to Moscow.
This revival of “The Three Sisters”, newly translated by Paul Schmidt, and directed by Austin Pendleton delivers Chekhov’s timeless, lyrical play with intimacy and immediacy. Designed by Walt Spangler, the set without walls radiates with the sights and sounds of every occasion – the beautiful spring afternoon when the brigade of soldiers arrive, a house under siege from a terrorizing sister-in-law, the thaw after a long winter when the brigade departs. With the audience seated on three sides peering into the playing area on the ground level, we feel as though we are part of their fish bowl. And when the actors, seemingly just a few feet away, fix their gazes on us, the shared experience becomes instantly cathartic.
And what a magical cast this is! Gyllenhaal (“Secretary”, “Crazy Heart”) portrays the self-destructive Masha, transforming her from a bitter, self-indulgent and despairing wife into a mature and sympathetic character. In being Vershinin, Sarsgaard (“Boys Don’t Cry”, “Shattered Glass”) delivers the character’s philosophical monologues with an existential bite, capturing the sense of urgency that fuels his romance with Masha, and that makes this feel like a story of and for our time.
Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Baron Tuzenbach gives a deft, comic portrayal of the suicidal lover, and Juliet Rylance is touching as the untouchable Irina. Louis Zorich portrays the doctor, Chebutykin, whose wasted life is a product of his alcoholic arrogance – while Josh Hamilton’s Andrey deteriorates from a sensitive intellectual to a tawdry and petty pawn of his pushy, self-serving wife Natasha (convincingly played by Marin Ireland). Sadly, her overbearing presence, a source of constant agitation for all, pushes the three sisters out of their home. Still, it is Hamilton’s portrayal of Andrey as he quietly looses his mind, that is one of the production’s most heartwrenching performances.
But regardless of their diverse natures, each of the characters suffer the same experience – a deep yearning for a life that can’t be lived, and the futility of living the one they have. “I want to go to Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!” That is the central action that drives each of the characters; and even though the train station is only eighteen miles away, no one ever gets there. “Mankind is passionately seeking something, and eventually we’ll find it. I just hope we find it soon,” Vershinin says at the end when all seems lost. And the marching band plays…
The pace throughout is faster than most productions of Chekhov. As adapted by Paul Schmidt, the language is also more contemporary. Still, the soul of the play, the loss and yearning that permeates it, comes across gracefully.
“The Three Sisters” is at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through March 6th. For tickets, visit www.classicstage.org, call 866-811-4111 or go to the box office.