Right now there are strong productions of both of these classics running in St. Louis. “The Three Sisters” plays at St. Louis University—always a source of quality drama.
The refined Olga, Masha, and Irina with their brother Andrei have lived in the uncultured provinces for eleven years—ever since their father, the colonel, was transferred there with his regiment. The sisters’ constant dream is to return to Moscow, where they are sure they would find true love, intellectual stimulation and meaningful work, Their father died a year ago, but still their home is a kind of “officers’ club” for the brigade.
Olga, the eldest sibling, is the only real adult in the family. As a teacher, she dreads her inevitable advancement to the office of principal.
Masha is married to a kindly older teacher, but she finds about marriage (as Gogo finds about the carrot) that “the more you eat, the worse it gets.” As always in Chekhov, Masha finds herself falling in love with the wrong person—the dashing Col. Vershinin, who is married.
And lovely young Irina! She is courted by all the young officers—and can love none of them.
Andrei, their brother (a bit of an Asperger’s type), who was once destined for a professorship, has succumbed to the wiles of a vulgar young woman, Natalia. He declines into marriage, parenthood, a position on the town council—and cuckoldom from the council president.
Director Tom Martin leads his cast into solid performances. Katy Keating as Olga, and Taylor Steward as Masha are utterly convincing in their angst, bearing the weary burden of this life. Elizabeth Meinders, blessed with beautiful, stage-worthy features, is particularly and easily engaging as Irina.
Natalia, the new inlaw bride, is perhaps miscast. She should be gauche and vulgar. The beautiful and elegant Caroline Kwan could hardly be expected to convey such qualities.
The large ensemble of men all give yeomanly performances.
But there is something amiss in the overall tone of the production. First, many of the most soul-searching outpourings were staged simply face to face, which is quite inappropriate for these people who are really communicating more with themselves than with each other. Often, as if with an eye on the clock, there was insufficient time given to transitions.
Secondly, there was very little of the sense of the ridiculous. Now Chekhov called “Three Sisters” a “drama” (unlike “Cherry Orchard” and “Vanya,” which he termed “comedies.”) Nevertheless it is important that many of these people—despite (or even because of) their unhappiness—see themselves, at some moments, as ridiculous. The useless doctor, the patient lovelorn baron, the captain whose love for Irina is decorated with asinine jokes, Masha’s helpless forgiving husband—even the sisters themselves—must occasionally admit to themselves and to us that they are ridiculous. To do so would give variety to the evening—and would make their suffering all the more poignant.
In ”Godot” (now running in a brilliant production at the Actors Studio) it is the burlesque comedy which makes the hopeless doom of Didi and Gogo so painfully moving. We must have a similar element in “Three Sisters”.
In both of these plays nobody “gets lucky” (least of all Lucky)—unless it might be the old nurse, Anfisa, who ends up in a comfortable government-provided room in her mistress Olga’s school residence. Why does she, of all, have a happy ending? Why was one of the thieves saved?
For the others they must resign themselves to saying (as Beckett says in his novel, “The Unnamable”) “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”