“Three Sisters” Chronicles the Last Gasp of the Russian Aristocracy

The cast of Three Sisters, gathered in Act I for Irina's name-day party. 

The cast of Three Sisters, gathered in Act I for Irina's name-day party. 

The first moments of American Players Theatre’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters are picture perfect. It is early May, and one of the servants (an earthy Sarah Day) is laying out crystal and silver on ornate rugs for 20-year-old Irina’s name-day party. Far in the background, in the actual green hills behind the stage, Olga and another servant are picking flowers in the meadow to celebrate the occasion. As the two women bring their bouquets to the feast, several exuberant (and shirtless) young men tumble down the hill in a good-natured race, frolicking until a photographer urges them to gather for a picture. The group obediently assembles for the photo, but not before the vigor drains from their faces. Clothes are straightened and hair smoothed. Joy is replaced by steely eyes and stoic expressions. They hold the pose while the film is exposed. The image of this day, which will outlive all its participants, is one of dour resolve.

The simplicity of these scenes, illustrating the short distance between a life filled with color and energy and one of staid grim monotones, is breathtaking. There are many such moments in the play, directed by William Brown, which chronicles the classic story of three young Russian women who wish in vain to return to Moscow and a gentler time filled with wonderful possibilities. Instead, they face an increasingly dreary life in a provincial town far away from their cosmopolitan upbringing.

Although it is truly an ensemble play, the heart of these struggles lies in the three siblings of the title: the oldest, Olga (Laura Rook), a weary schoolteacher who longs for a husband and family instead of the noise and strain of her classroom; the rebellious and angry middle sister Masha (Kelsey Brennan), who is disillusioned with her marriage to the simple Latin teacher Kulygin (John Taylor Phillips); and the delicate, often child-like Irina (Rebecca Hurd), whose optimism sours when her naiveté is replaced with harsh, real-world experience. Each of these actors brings elegant specificity to her character, yet they emanate a familial warmth and solidarity when confronted by the coarseness and occasional cruelty of outsiders.

As the maternal one, Rook wears her responsibility like a heavy coat. Her exhaustion and loneliness is palpable as her character is thrust into roles she never wanted. Primly dressed in plain but practical clothes (part of the stunning costume design by Rachel Anne Healy), she carries the keys and watch for the trio, a reluctant disciplinarian.

As the outspoken Masha, Brennan makes no effort to hide the middle sister’s rage and disappointment. Entering defiantly in a puff of cigarette smoke, she physically recoils from her husband’s touch and throws things at her shrill and grasping sister-in-law Natasha (played with desperate volatility by Eliza Stoughton). And there is no comforting her in Brennan’s final scene as she parts from her lover, Vershinin (a somewhat mechanical Chiké Johnson). Her jagged sobs cut through the theater like a thunderclap.

As Irina, Rebecca Hurd practically glows in a gauzy white dress for her name-day party, her face radiant as she talks about a future full of purpose. A few years later, her slight frame slumps under the tedium of a dull job at the telegraph office. Flashes of childlike joy return when she is presented with silly toys, but as the play progresses, heaviness overtakes her. Hurd appears hard and immobile as a statue while she observes her world in decay. The character’s state of mind is reflected in her changing dresses, which devolve from elegant and bright to plain and dull.

Kevin Depinet’s towering set flattens out the birch trees that are referenced several times in the script and presents them as blurred lines that strain for — but cannot reach — the upper tier of the stage. What begins as a pleasantly bright background later appears washed out and lifeless, like faded photos of stoic ancestors.

By setting the play at the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th — on the eve of World War I — Brown accentuates the changes that disconcert the three sisters, threatening to leave them and the remnants of an idle aristocratic class behind. In this context, the play’s ending also reverberates with irony: Olga despairs that the women might never learn the meaning behind all their present suffering. But with a war of unprecedented proportions lurking around the corner, their complaints seem as quaint as a name day-party on a summer afternoon.

This article originally appeared online at isthmus.com.