In the third act of Three Sisters the youngest of the Moscow-yearning sisters, Irina Prozorov, suddenly becomes distraught: at 24, her life seems nearly over, she feels trapped in the boondocks among people she perceives as her intellectual inferiors, and her brother Andrei’s bossy harridan of a wife has taken over management of their house. In hysterical despair, she takes the fact that she can’t even remember the words for “window” or “ceiling” in Italian as a sign that she’s getting thin and old and ugly and that her “brain is shriveling up!”
For reasons that are hard to convey, I found this moment in PICT’s production (along with many other moments like it) gaspingly, snortlingly funny. And when I was done laughing (and, embarrassingly, actually snorting), I heard the companion of the person next to me whisper worriedly: “Was that supposed to be funny?”
Gentle reader, I don’t know whether it was director Harriet Power’s intention to pitch that particular moment into comedy, or whether it was actor Vera Varlamov’s desire to garner a laugh on that speech; but I do strongly suspect that playwright Anton Chekhov would not have been displeased by my amusement. Russians consider Chekhov a comic writer, but it seems to be the rare American production that can accurately strike the funny bone with his work. So it is to this ensemble’s great credit that they’re conveying the absurdity of even the play’s most despairing moments. For while we can all surely relate to Irina’s feeling of existential anguish, at the same time its teen-drama-queen expression feels ridiculously overblown, especially in the context of the scene, in which several families have just lost everything they own to a terrible fire. What a luxury to be in the position to worry, at such a time, about whether you’ll ever have a chance to use your Italian. In short, dear reader: you have permission to laugh, even if, like Masha, you end up laughing through your tears.
The design of this production is solid, the costumes (by Pei-Chi Su) grounding us firmly in 19th-century Russia while the set (Gianni Downs) takes a step in the direction of poetic-metaphoric flight. Credit for the impact of this production goes to Power’s direction, which insightfully captures the interpersonal dynamics and tensions that develop over the course of the play. Her staging perceptively explores the unspoken subtext — and expands the silences — of Chekhov’s text. The two scenes in which Vershinin (David Whalen) and Masha (Allison McLemore) probe the boundaries of their adulterous desire for each other, for example, are barely recognizable as love scenes in Chekhov’s text; here, they crackle with sexual tension, particularly in the third act, where the two flirt and kiss in the presence of her sleeping husband. Overall, the large cast superbly embodies the psychological complexities and idiosyncracies of Chekhov’s characters. Megan McDermott and Joseph Domencic, playing Natasha and Kulygin, the petty status-climbing spouses of brother Andrei (Christian Conn) and sister Masha, nicely capture the dullness, triviality, and meanness (in both senses of that word) that is so tormenting to the members of the rapidly falling and failing Prozorov family, and, as the Baron Tuzenbach, Leo Marks is suitably irritating (if not believably ugly) as the haplessly besotted suitor to the vivacious Irina. There are also compelling turns in many of the minor roles — in particular, Jonathan Visser as a dangerously edgy Solyony, Larry John Meyers as the resignedly philosophical Dr. Chebutykin, Adrian Blake Enscoe as an ebullient and charismatic Fedotik, and Robert Haley as the baffled, half deaf Ferapont.
Life, as Chekhov understood, is precious and silly at the same time. Three Sisters encourages us to laugh, cry, and laugh again at this terrible, wonderful truth.