The Russians in Chekhov’s plays almost always struggle with feelings of insignificance. With his haunting THREE SISTERS (playing through June 21st), Chekhov foreshadows the revolution he didn’t live to see—“There’s a storm coming to clean out our society.”—And he mourns a generation living in the past: Each sister wants to love and be loved but two choose the wrong partner and one accepts “God’s will” to stay unmarried, honoring restrictions as tightly bound as their hair.
Director Marta Rainer’s lovely, heartbreaking production manages to capture the sisters’ palpable desperation and send it directly across the footlights. What at first may seem to be the arch concerns of Chekhov’s privileged characters still resonates today: Is happiness possible? Can we make a difference in the world? Why are people suffering? Is there greater meaning in life? Can we start over again…and when it’s revealed that no one in this play, aristocratic or otherwise, will be happy—not even the school precept who insists he is—we’re left as bereft as the sisters.
Rainer and company mine the characters’ raw emotions even as they try to control their outward affect. It’s a delicate dance, cleverly mirrored at the start and play’s end in an actual slowly measured, winding circular dance. The remarkable ensemble work at WST benefits even the smallest of roles: John Davin and Charlotte Peed are the aging servants on whom hard work has taken its toll. Davin thankfully provides some lighter moments when he can no longer hear the directives of his demanding employers. Zack Georgian and Dan Prior as the carefree young soldiers at the fringes of the tapestry make an indelible impression as well, one trying to please Irina with small gifts and one trying to delay the future by taking photos of the present.
Zena Chatilla as the innocent Irina, whose twentieth birthday brings everyone together in the first act, slowly discovers that life holds no satisfaction for her. Angela Bilkic as her sister Masha, has her spirit crushed by a loveless marriage (to Shelley Bolman’s pompous schoolmaster) and an unfulfilled romance with the dashing colonel (Woody Gaul) who is mired in a hopeless marriage of his own. Gaul provides a welcome laugh with saucer eyes when Bolman offers a Latin phrase designed to impress.
You can feel the spark between Gaul and Bilkic, the same spark noticeably missing from the brother’s union with a ferocious woman (Marge Dunn) who controls his every move. Samuel L. Warton plays the tragic son whom father “educated with a vengeance” for a career as a professor but who ends up as a glorified clerk. Sacrifice gallops through the family, with Caitlin Graham as the oldest sister, Olga, throwing herself into teaching. There aren’t many victories for the sisters but Olga gets one when Dunn’s tightfisted Natasha threatens to banish Peed’s loyal servant. (Just to make Dunn’s character more villainous, Chekhov even references another orchard when Dunn threatens to cut down their trees.)
Charles Linshaw as the brash, headstrong Baron who rhapsodizes about the value of “work” while avoiding it altogether and Daniel Boudreau as the unsophisticated dinner guest who seems to place his foot in his mouth as often as his glass of vodka, both unfortunately set their cap for Irina. John Kinsherf as Chekhov’s physician stand-in, regrets everything, drowns himself in drink and consoles himself with the notion that nothing matters at all. Because they all interact so seamlessly with each other in WST’s compelling production, you hope against hope that one, just one of them will escape with some joy.