… three ages of women …

Chekhov wrote Three Sisters for production on a proscenium stage but I think he would have been thrilled to see this expansion of his work in Classic Stage’s magnificent large and high performance space.  The potential breadth of Three Sisters is fulfilled in a way I’ve never seen before: the philosophical vision, the psychology and the drama enlarge as if here they’ve found a space to unfold their wings.

Irina, the youngest sister, is virginal and flits around wearing white.  Beginning the play on her 20th name day, Chekhov sets his theme, the struggle toward maturity.  Whom will Irina marry — a real life suitor, or an imagined love of her life dwelling in Moscow where the family once lived and where she longs to return?  Masha is the married woman, sensitive, witty, a trained pianist.  Now 25, she wed too young and, chafing at the bit of marital disappointment, carries on an affair with a dashing and idealistic officer temporarily stationed in town.  Olga, the oldest, is the spinster (at a mere 28!), and a school teacher, motherly and protective toward her sisters , her students and toward the old servant woman.

Together the three sisters represent the three ages of women: emblematic and at the same time richly drawn, fully individualized characters.

The sisters and their brother, Andrey, are living fairly well, following the deaths of their parents, in a provincial Russian town in the late 19th Century (Three Sisters was written in 1900).  The action centers around the family house.  Things have been moving along in a kind of status quo, marked by the loves and enjoyments that link the siblings and their individual frustrations and longings, shaded by an elegiac sense of a better past.

But Andrey shakes the status quo.  Unknown to his sisters, he’s been gambling what’s left of the family fortune, threatening the house’s ownership.  And he falls in love with, and then marries a coarse, noisy woman, Natasha, the opposite of the sisters in education, refinement and class background.  And when she has a baby — oh my a Baby — and ultimately another, she really rules the roost, thrusting the sisters out of their bedrooms and, it seems, ejecting them from their lives.

Will the sisters become victims?  Looks like it.  We worry for them, feel sad for them, while thinking something along the lines of the day of their class is done and here comes the New Russia.

But instead they grow.  Three Sisters is a play of self-actualization.  Each accommodates to reality in a different way.  Chekhov doesn’t make it easy for them.  When we think we know what needs to be done, new challenges roll in like tidal waves onto this quiet family in a quiet town.  The sisters draw strength from within and from each other.  Only Andrey ends up a flop and a laughing stock, a victim of his own weakness and under the thumb of his crude wife.  But the individual victories of the three sisters — not fantasy victories but genuine ones — are moving and resonate and remain in the mind as inspiring.

At the end one man, Fedotik, who has just lost all in a fire — as at the end all human beings lose everything — reminds us that ultimate loss does not negate that his life, and that these lives reach into the unseen future.  The production, designed for viewing on three sides in Classic Stage’s theater, with its central faceted and climbing set, continuing as a reflection in a smoky mirrored backdrop, carries that largeness of vision.  What a big play!

The acting is on a high level with two performances particularly strong.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is convincing as the agitated, seductive, artistic sister, verging on hysteria and yet holding on (one reviewer in the NY Times found her characterization too contemporary but no, Gyllenhaal gives us a fine embodiment of a “neurasthenic” woman known very well in 19th-century literature).  Jessica Hecht is charismatic as the older school teacher spinster — nothing dowdy here!  Her charm and warmth, the way we see her thinking in response the the events that pass before her eyes and ours, her growth in strength for what she doesn’t want but must take on — for others as well as herself — is compelling.  James Patrick Nelson moved me greatly in his final lines that link the present of the play with the ongoing theater of human hopes.

Three Sisters plays at Classic Stage through March 6th at 6:30.

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