The Three Sisters, Classic Stage Company

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Maggie Gyllenhaal, Juliet Rylance, and Jessica Hecht in The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters
by Anton Chekhov
translation by Paul Schmidt

Directed by Austin Pendleton
Classic Stage Company, NYC

With Gabe Bettio, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Jessica Hecht, Marin Ireland, Paul Lazar, Roberta Maxwell, George Morfogen, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Anson Mount, James Patrick Nelson, Juliet Rylance, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis Zorich

The nostalgia at the heart of The Three Sisters is not just an elegiac yearning for a romanticized, irretrievable past but the eye-widening horror that life will never be good again. Though the sisters lament the difficulty of returning to Moscow, the idyllic setting of happy childhood memories, they cannot reverse aging or resurrect their late father. Time had removed all possibility for happiness, and so the future can only be dreaded and the present survived. Unlike other Chekhov plays, in which emblematic objects of desire—a mortgaged estate, an elusive lover—are palpable and immediate, the longing in The Three Sisters has no tangible symbol. It is a specter, a mood. This clear-sighted production, directed by Austin Pendelton, depicts that objectless sense of loss with remarkable freshness and focus, and its cast is superlative. Each performance is refined and vibrant, and each element builds cohesively to unlock the trapped and volatile characters’ hopelessness and anguish.

The soul of this absorbing production is Jessica Hecht’s Olga, the elder sister and a gentle schoolteacher, whose plaintive yet resolute voice trembles with poignancy. As an unmarried mother figure for her younger sisters who labors to lift their spirits at every turn and carries the emotional stability of the household on her shoulders, Olga doesn’t keep things bottled up. Almost compulsively, she invokes regrets and lost opportunities when others would prefer she keep her memories to herself. Olga’s reminiscences only aggravate the guileless Irina (Juliet Rylance), whose adolescent euphoria succumbs to adult disillusionment, and the sullen Masha (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose more overt depression is relieved by an affair with the married lieutenant Vershinin (Peter Saarsgard), whose artillery unit is temporarily stationed near the sisters’ modest estate.

The Three Sisters is a true ensemble play, and the unmannered cast depicts delicate shifts in relationships with such fine-drawn patience, candidness and sensitivity that they are deeply engaging during both the impassioned scenes of emotional reckoning and the quieter, subdued moments of sober resignation. As Andrei, the antisocial slacker brother with a gambling problem, Josh Hamilton is the embodiment of an emasculated, defensive ne’er-do-well who must contend with everyone’s disappointment in his unreached potential. Marin Ireland, as Andrei’s conniving wife Natasha, depicts a dazzling transformation from a ditzy and insecure country girl to a cuckolding and manipulative nag.

It is the understated, earthbound quality of the characterizations that makes this production much more satisfying than Austin Pendleton’s crasser companion production of Uncle Vanya, which featured actors who give more genuine performances here. Ms. Gyllenhaal and Mr. Saarsgard do more with less; their characters’ discontent is riveting in its prosaic nature. Their dynamic is vividly complemented by Paul Lazar, who plays Masha’s older husband, a kindly and humdrum high school principal who speaks in bromides and who would’ve been a better match for Olga. He is a charming and sympathetic presence. So is Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Tuzenbach, a young bespectacled odd-duck lieutenant in love with Irina. His friend Fedotik (James Patrick Nelson) is an amateur photographer and has everyone pose for a photograph at Irina’s twentieth birthday party. The uneasy tableau, in which the company obligingly tries to smile, is an exquisite and graceful moment.

What mostly happens is so inconspicuous and unremarkable that actual dramatic events come as an aberrant shock – a neighborhood fire, and a swift and senseless act of violence. It’s so captivating to watch the lounging, the small talk, the recriminations, the banqueting, the lamentations, the carousing, the wistful reminiscing and philosophizing, that real disasters seem incongruous. Nevertheless the pain is disturbing, particularly Masha’s crazed despair at Vershinin’s departure. Chebutykin (Louis Zorich), a doddering and affable old man at the beginning of the play, turns cynical and numbed by the end.

The despondent heroines may be wringed dry by their emotional losses, but this production is so heartfelt and ravishing, so relentless in its exploration of emotional crevices, so deeply and thoroughly cathartic that one can only react not with fatalistic pessimism but with an irrepressible sense of awe.

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