‘Three Sisters’ is as good as Chekhov gets
By Betty Mohr Theater Reviewfirstname.lastname@example.org August 8, 2012 3:26PM
Caroline Neff and Dan Waller star in "Three Sisters" at Steppenwolf Theatre. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times Media
◆ Through Aug. 26
◆ Steppenwolf Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago
◆ Tickets, $20-$75
◆ (312) 335-1650; steppenwolf.org
Updated: September 11, 2012 6:06AM
This is the original dysfunctional family play. “Three Sisters” is short on plot and action, but loaded with tortured souls who mess up their lives.
Although the drama has long been a staple of theater, “Three Sisters” has been given new life in an engaging production at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.
Written by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “Three Sisters” opened in Moscow in 1901.
Now, the gifted Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner for “August: Osage County,” has come up with a new translation that concentrates on the ideas of the work rather than the language.
“Three Sisters,” which features Orland Park native Tom McGrath, is a slice-of-life classic in which we find a family frozen into futility by inner demons.
The characters believe that all their problems would be solved if they could only reach Moscow, the big city that offers everything lacking in the stultifying town in which they find themselves.
In the play, Chekhov tries to present the comic side of human folly by revealing that the characters’ problems are within themselves.
As is always the case at Steppenwolf, the artistic talent is superb.
The stunning backdrop of a gargantuan picture window filled with a forest of white birch by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, sets the location of the play to perfection.
And the lush original music by David Singer sets the time and mood, as does the lighting by Donald Holder and costume design by Jess Goldstein.
Anna D. Shapiro directs with a masterful touch, and the ensemble of performers brings a new reality to Chekhov’s characters.
Indeed, the revival is as good as Chekhov gets.
But “Three Sisters” is not for everyone.
As one of the main characters, Masha explains: “It’s all talk, talk, talk, all the time.”
That is one of the reasons the play has always been slow-moving, and remains so even in the new Letts incarnation.
Philosophizing about life can be significant and meaningful if there is a strong plot, but that isn’t the case in “Three Sisters.”
Instead we find characters who can’t stop talking about how miserable they are. These unhappy and bored souls don’t have a clue as to how to help themselves.
Here you have Andrey (Dan Waller) going on about how terrible life is: “Where did it go? First you’re young and then you’re old.”
There is also Chebutykin (terrific Scott Jaeck), the doctor, wondering, “Maybe we don’t really exist; maybe we’re not really here.”
And then there is Vershinin (excellent John Judd), a lieutenant colonel who realizes that life is hard.
In addition, there’s Irina (Caroline Neff) who is so depressed she wants to kill herself, and Masha (exquisite Carrie Coon) whose husband, Fyodor (incredible Yasen Peyankov), loves her but whom she doesn’t love in return.
There also is Olga (wonderful Ora Jones) who is willing to marry anyone, even an old man.
This is not a happy play. Indeed, “Three Sisters” has always been a downer.
But, Steppenwolf has put its heart and soul into giving the show a polished spin, and if you’re a Chekhov fan, you’re unlikely to see it done better.
Betty Mohr is a local freelance writer.