Dying Souls

The star-laden cast of Three Sisters is sure to draw eager audiences to Classic Stage Company’s home on 13th Street. But in a season that has seen the failure of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, stars are no guarantee of success, so it’s necessary to affirm that Austin Pendleton’s production of Chekhov’s play deserves to be a hot ticket. A year after their father’s death, the siblings of the title, who are daughters of a general, languish in a backwater of Russia. They share a home with their brother Andrey, socializing frequently with officers from the local garrison and discussing their happy memories and hopes of returning to Moscow, where they grew up.

But it’s the future that’s on the mind of the new commanding colonel, Vershinin (Peter Sarsgaard), smiling and luxuriating in their warmth—and particularly in the company of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s captivated Masha. Vershinin philosophizes that society will get better and better, perhaps only gradually over generations, but mankind is always advancing. In the present, however, there is only uncertainty: “There’s no way we can guess what will be considered important and serious, and what will be considered petty and silly,” he tells the sisters. It’s the genius of the play to show the characters’ fine spirits slowly degenerate and their hopes dwindle over the years.

Top to bottom the cast is irresistible, from Jessica Hecht’s stalwart, sensitive Olga, to Juliet Rylance’s lovely, distressed Irina, to Anson Mount’s brooding loose cannon Solyony. They include servants—George Morfogen’s deaf-ish, hangdog Ferapont, Roberta Maxwell’s fearful, occasionally grousing Anfisa—and the military men garrisoned in the town—notably Eben Moss-Bachrach’s cultured and gentlemanly Baron Tuzenbach, smitten with Irina, and Louis Zorich’s bluff military doctor, Chebutykin, who has given up drink but adheres to a fatalistic view of life at odds with Vershinin’s.

As they all grapple with destiny, they are painfully human and foolish: Irina, for instance, is sure that a life of work will be fulfilling, but once she has a job, she finds it stultifying, and the working class life alters her behavior in a way she dislikes. The sisters find their cultured upbringing—speaking foreign languages, playing music—is relentlessly eroded by their surroundings. Even Vershinin’s sunny outlook grows dimmer as he deals with a possibly insane wife and her suicidal impulses.

“Most of the people in this town are so vulgar, so unpleasant, so stupid,” Masha complains to Vershinin, with whom she has an affair to escape her arid marriage. “Vulgarity upsets me, it wounds me; I get physically sick when I see someone who lacks finesse, who lacks kindness and gentleness.”

Filling that bill is Marin Ireland’s Natasha, the irritating, wheedling upstart who captures the heart of Josh Hamilton’s passionate Andrey and then, in marriage, turns him into a morose cuckold. Nattering about her offspring and maneuvering the sisters out of their rooms and eventually their home, Natasha is the essence of crassness. (Paul Huntley has provided her a marvelous wig, so that when Ireland stomps around, curls bounce around like she’s a bobble-headed doll.) It’s part of Chekhov’s genius that one is never sure that Natasha might not have been a better person if the sisters had treated her better; her first hints of bad behavior feel like the worm turning, but as she continues, she becomes heartless.

Pendleton’s direction is superb; he even takes judicious liberties. During the Act III fire, Olga, echoing Masha’s delicacy of feeling, complains of Natasha’s insensitivity after she yells at the aged Anfisa. Here Anfisa doesn’t exit when Chekhov indicates it, but huddles for protection in Olga’s lap for many more lines during Natasha’s tirade. The director makes another canny interpolation by adding a kiss when Solyony declares his love for Irina; the trembling soldier leans in slowly and their lips touch. It works beautifully, and the romantic tension between the actors is electric.

The missteps in the production are minimal. In Paul Schmidt’s translation Natasha calls Andrey “Andy,” and it sounds bogus and grating; also, an occasional phrase—e.g., “You are the limit!”—seems too modern for the characters. One also has to gloss over the fact that Sarsgaard’s Vershinin is equal in age to Masha and Olga and could hardly have remembered the sisters as “little girls,” but otherwise he’s fine as Masha’s easygoing, optimistic lover. When he departs at the climax, leaving Masha to her husband, the dull, doting schoolteacher Kulygin (Paul Lazar), Gyllenhaal responds with rafter-shaking hysterics.

It may be that Ira Gershwin was thinking of Three Sisters when he wrote the lyrics to “But Not for Me” (“With love to lead the way/I’ve found more clouds of gray/Than any Russian play could guarantee”). Chekhov’s play has plenty of gloom, it’s true, but this production is exhilarating, essential viewing.

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