I'm sure there were some people at the opening of the Guthrie's Three Sisters who had also attended the theater's 1963 staging of the Chekhov classic. Presumably, some of them watched other productions of the play in between, maybe some in exotic or at least out-of-state places. Me, I came to the sisters as a virgin, which has its disadvantages, as my old camp counselor Delilah Kirkwall could attest (wait, I dreamt that). Seriously, though, I wish I had apples-to-apples comparisons to make, though maybe such experience would obstruct my gee-willikers enthusiasm. Late in the play, nihilistic doctor Chebutykin (Stephen Yoakam) bemoans how he and his peers nod with false reverence at the mention of Shakespeare or Voltaire. "Ah, Shakespeare," he says with ironic pomposity, and we hear ourselves saying, "Ah, Chekhov."
Except, maybe we mean it. Three Sisters has the kind of brilliance secularists can turn into religion and believers might take for proof. It's the big ideas articulated in such beautifully simple language, I guess, or the flawed characters that elicit your sympathy without begging you to love them.
The three Prozorov sisters are nothing if not flawed, alluring but not lovable. They can be supercilious, lugubrious, effete, and blunt to the point of cruelty. Olga (Julie Briskman), Masha (Kathryn Meisle), and Irina (Meghan Wolf) are young sophisticates wilting in a banal provincial town, clinging to the elusive and salvific prospect of returning to their native Moscow. As hard-up members of Russia's fading upper class, the sisters--and their aspiring intellectual brother Andrei (Michael Booth)--must work for a living, but they're still leisure-class layabouts at heart. When a fire destroys much of the town in Act 3, Andrei plays the fiddle like Nero. The sisters are apoplectic as Andrei's socially inferior wife Natasha (Michelle O'Neill) takes over what remains of the family's wealth and carries on a poorly concealed affair. Their self-pitying inertia could easily be insufferable, but under Joe Dowling's direction, the sisters are also large-hearted, their endurance feeling quietly heroic.
Chekhov once blamed Konstantin Stanislavsky, who directed the 1901 premiere of Three Sisters, for turning "[his] characters into crybabies." Dowling, thankfully, is not guilty of that offense. There is very little blubbering in this production. When, in Act 4, Masha keens at the feet of her departing lover Alexander (Stephen Pelinski), the scene's impact comes largely from its contrast to the cool bitterness and simmering passion Meisle has projected up to that point. Though Pelinski's wounded gallant is a close runner-up, Meisle's performance is the show's standout. Her expressions of disgust, sorrow, and hope (a glimmer of attraction upon first meeting Alexander is flawless) can command the stage even when the action is elsewhere, even when her stare is, but isn't, affectless.
The sisters' nemesis, the adulterous Natasha, is palpably detestable in O'Neill's hands, but the character presents some problems that aren't fully addressed by Dowling's guidance. She's perhaps the least rounded major character in all of Chekhov's mature plays--"not human," her husband says in a rare moment of honest reflection--essentially a symbol of the triumph of vulgarity over (classically defined) aristocracy. O'Neill is best when she's at her most insidious, designing her takeover of the house with false maternal solicitousness. But by Act 3, when she stamps her feet and screams "Bitch!" at Olga, the portrayal veers too deep into melodrama and loses much of its flesh-and-blood menace thereafter.
There's funny stuff here, more than in the Jeune Lune's recent production of the potentially lighter The Seagull. The comedy is generally appropriate and welcome, but it can be a mood-breaker. The tertiary characters--especially the ancient servants--are played too much for laughs, and Bill McCallum's comic reading of the sanguinary Captain Solyony, a suitor to Irina, impedes the story's obvious but still ominous foreshadowing. And after a vibrant first half, the production loses some momentum after intermission. This, however, I take for a success. As the play progresses, the sisters become more deflated, and if our energy is also sapped, well, isn't that called empathy?