Director Donald Hicken, a Helen Hayes winner and Tony nominee, has adapted Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters to convey with elegant simplicity and exquisite bleakness the provinciality of a place so depressing it is identified only as “not Moscow.” This show is the company’s strongest production to date. But it is not for playgoers with seasonal depression.
I’m tempted to summarize this 1901 classic with a contemporary bumper sticker Chekhov might have sported were he alive: Life’s a B*+CH, and then you marry one. But doing so would rob his characters of their existential struggles at a time when happiness seems theirs for the taking.
The play opens on the one-year anniversary of General Prozorov’s death. Now his three daughters — Olga (Teresa Spencer), Masha (Olivia Ercolano) and Irina (Chelsea Mayo) — may discard their mourning attire. Yet only the youngest does. Irina, a naïve beauty in flouncy white eyelet, dreams of working to find a purpose. Olga, a sympathetic teacher in spinster grey, regrets her workload. Masha, elegant in black moiré, sulks over “another goddamn evening in a miserable goddamn life” with her boring husband Kulygin (Brendan Edward Kennedy), a teacher. All three refined women yearn to return to Moscow. There we have the monochromatic palette of disappointment that defines a story where love is elusive and nice guys always finish last.
The sisters live with their elderly servant Anfisa (Jane Petkofsky) and brother Andrei (James Carpenter), another underachieving teacher, who dreams of happiness with a bumptious local beauty, Natasha (Renata Plecha). Providing intellectual discourse is a parade of army officers, including unhappily married Colonel Vershinin (Steven Hoochuk) who takes a shine to Masha; Baron Tuzenbach (Brian Keith MacDonald), an endearing philosopher devoted to Irina; his belligerent colleague, Captain Solyony (Michael Reid), a strange and crude presence equally smitten with her; and Doctor Chebutykin (Tony Tsendeas), the jaded old family friend.
The idle rich, we see over a two-year span, yearn to be productive as they wile away the hours with nonsequitur colloquy punctuated by snippets of song and shots of vodka. Yet by play’s end they all agree “life is stupid and hopeless.” Only Natasha, the least likable and cultured among them, achieves a measure of self-absorbed happiness through motherhood, domination and an affair with her milquetoast husband’s boss. He and the other cuckolded husbands resolve to be happy with their lot.
In a welcome change from minimalist sets, this show features antiques mixed and matched as they might be in a 19th century home, illuminated by sconces and a wall of windows reflecting the seasons to a soundtrack of balalaika music. The staging is smart with such realistic touches as characters sitting around all four sides of a table, turning to catch snippets of private conversation. As for the acting, the cast is superb, and MacDonald is unforgettable as the ill-fated and lovesick Tuzenbach.
If you ever ask yourself, as these characters do, “what difference does anything make,” you will appreciate this show. If you are an optimist (like me) who loves the theater, you will still appreciate this superb production.
FSa 8pm, Su 3pm, Th 2/18 7:30pm thru Feb. 21. 111 Chinquapin Round Rd., $40 w/discounts: annapolisshakespeare.org.
Voice and dialect coach, Nancy Krebs; Lights, Adam Mendelson; Sound designer, Madeleine Scheifele; Stage manager, David Johnson; Costumes and set, Donald Hicken and Sally Boyett.