It is rumored that when celebrated Russian playwright Anton Chekhov sat down to write "Three Sisters" in 1900, he was inspired by the trials and tribulations of some of his famous predecessors and colleagues, the Bronte sisters. Anne, Charlotte and Emily like the titular siblings Olga, Masha and Irina in Chekov's work, were eminently intelligent, capable and strong women preoccupied with the fortunes of a lesser male relative.
In "Three Sisters," brother Andrei represents the scholarly hopes and dreams of a family with military lineage. As adapted by Tony Award-and Pulitzer Prize-winning Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Tracy Letts, when this version of the play opens, Andrei is on the fast track to obtaining a professorship in Moscow, that is, until he makes the tragic mistake of falling in love and getting married.
His foil, oldest sister Olga, achieves great professional success as the headmistress of a local school yet the spinster laments that she would have married "any man, even an old man if he had asked...as long as he was good." It is one of the central themes of the work whether in love, like, lust or passionless, no one is really content.
Can I stop for a moment and say that I am a huge fan of Tracy Letts? I have enjoyed his work as an actor in the 2009 Steppenwolf production of "American Buffalo." I have adored his legacy as a writer, most notably the comically dark "August: Osage County" for which Mr. Letts won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He is a true talent -- and yet every genius takes a misstep now and then.
In a traditional mounting of "Three Sisters," the running time approaches three hours, while this production barely crosses two and a half, with one 15-minute intermission allowed. Furthermore, Letts does not speak Russian. Both of these facts contribute to a somewhat convoluted sense of dialogue, the takeaway for audience members that critical material is missing. By his own admission, Letts claims in the show's press release: "My first pass through the script was like math; it was some of the hardest stuff I've ever done, just trying to figure out what the sentences were."
Though there is much to be admired in Lett's attempt to capture the gallows humor of Chekov's work, the macabre hilarity inherent in a "respectable" family's attempt to hold onto its good name and fortune in a dwindling pond in which it was once a very big fish. As I have already said, there is a definite sense of missing elements.
For example, the passionate affair between married middle sister Masha (the incomparable Carrie Coon) and Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin (John Judd) is given very short shrift. It is pivotal to the audience's understanding of the disaffected and disillusioned Masha, one of the play's sources of comic relief, yet if one had gotten up to use the restroom during a pivotal scene in the second act, you might never know the liaison happened.
That said, the production has it good points. In Letts' script, important vernacular updates are rendered that serve to give the play a more modern, accessible bent. While jotting down some notes after the show's conclusion, I wrote five key phrases: work, happiness, satisfaction, honesty and military service. These words are repeated throughout the dialogue, dripping from the mouths of nearly every important player. The varying uses and connotations provide the basis of eternal discussion.
What is work/service and does one need to perform it to be happy in life? What are happiness and satisfaction anyway -- the latter word toyed with in the physical as well as the emotional sense? Can we ever be 100 percent honest with another human being without exposing ourselves to danger? If disjointed in other ways, the adaptation does a clear job of outlining the existential issues with which the Prozorova family and their friends wrestle.
Colorblind casting from director Anna D. Shapiro is seamless enough to serve as an afterthought. No mention of it is made in press materials and post-production chatter did not include its notice. May all theater experiences veer in this direction.
Scenic and Lighting Design from Todd Rosenthal and Donald Holder, respectively, are an ingenious amalgam of technology and analog props that flawlessly establish changes in years, seasons, fortunes and locations. Beautiful work.
And last but not least, much credit goes to the rather large and diverse cast that commands the stage in "Three Sisters," though I will single out the incredible Carrie Coons, whose work I first encountered and enjoyed in Steppenwolf's Civil War epic "The March" this past Spring.
Coons manages to portray the threads of hopelessness and misery that weave the tapestry of life married to the wrong man. Yet there is a strength, a resolute refusal to let bad decisions rob her world of wit that makes Coons' inhabitation of Masha so irresistible. Maury Cooper also deserves special notice in the role of Ferapont. He takes what could have been a minor throwaway part and imbues the old manservant with sight gag virtuosity.
"Three Sisters," the conclusion to Steppenwolf Theatre's 2011/12 Season bearing the theme, "Dispatches from the Homefront," is competent with some truly worth elements. Though dealing with adult themes, a palpable lack of violence, nudity or strong language also makes the production suitable for all ages.
"Three Sisters" runs through August 26 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago. For info or tickets call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.