Three Sisters

Written by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Austin Pendleton
Featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Hecht, Marin Ireland

Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
January 12, 2011 — March 6, 2011
production web site:

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 6, 2011

Juliet Rylance as Irina, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Masha, Jessica Hecht as Olga

Husband and I crossed communication wires when I purchased tickets for this production’s final performance some weeks ago.  I proposed two end of row seats off to the side (among the few available via on-line ticketing for the quickly selling show), he mulled then demurred, I purchased just one in the front row way to the side (ended up to be this dramaturg’s delight of a seat, more on that later), and we both forgot it was just one, not two tickets purchased.  So this rainy Manhattan Sunday we two cab our way to 13th Street and make our way to the ticket booth, with the first of several celebrity audience member sightings (Bill Irwin) in the small lobby of this compact performing space.  And I am handed only one ticket.  Husband looks to me, smiles, heads back uptown, and I enter alone, eagerly anticipating the performance and a little wistful and disappointed.  I am accustomed to solo theatre outings yet had been looking forward to sharing this event with spouse.  And of course, this wistful, slightly somber, slightly bemused (at myself), focused attention was the perfect mood in which to receive the final performance of Austin Pendleton‘s splendid and intimate production of Three Sisters.

Austin Pendleton himself emerges to check the house pre-show.  My audience includes theatre makers and theatre fans such as Mr. Irwin, James Earl Jones, Alan Cummings, Wallace Shawn, Eli and Anne Wallach, and others I am sure.  And it begins. Immense formally set dining table directly before me (could seat 20), chairs, seating areas.  And “upstage” (to my left at far audience left, hard by one of the actor entrances) stage-aged reflective surfaces which evoke reflected elegance of perhaps a more gentle past era. The playing space is not raised at all but is in fact wide pine planks, stained dark. audience surface eases into playing surface, and pull your foot in to avoid capturing the toe in a train of a dress sweeping past. Glorious. Intimate. Feel it.

Act one provides us possibilities and context.  Sister school teachers Olga (Jessica Hecht) and Masha (Maggie Gyllenhaal), youngest clerk (Irina) were brought up in an educated military household in the country by a recently deceased father — the script isn’t clear but it has been many years since their mother passed away.  The educated and under-employed brother Andrey (Josh Hamilton) plays music, gambles, marries a local girl Natasha (Marin Ireland) who offers the sisters an object of scorn and yet conveys her own form of understanding and strength.  The Doctor Chebutykin (Louis Zorich) is avuncular and irascible; soldiers Tuzenback (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and others yearn and are pulled away to acts of courage or misguided gallantry; household familiars Anfisa (Roberta Maxwell) and Ferapont (George Morfogen) are sweet and put upon, and so on.  The sisters never reach Moscow.  Marriages endure, are tested, and never begin.  Mothers are mourned. (Dialogue by married soldier Vershinin, Peter Sarsgaard, who remembers the adult sisters as little girls and their mother, and Gyllenhaal’s Masha noting she couldn’t recall her mother’s face, brings some of the first tears for this audience member who lost her mother while still in her teens.)  Moments of sharp words between brother and father Andrey and servant Ferapont illustate little daily cruelties, the delicate pain etched on actor Morfogen’s face in perfect view from my ringside vantage point.  So many small moments adding to a fully articulated whole.

In a playbill insert, director Pendleton is interviewed about playing and directing Chekhov at different life stages.  He artfully focuses on the current production, not recalling the details of past encountered and full of nuance about this adventure.  He repeats that Chekhov doesn’t change but the artist approaching him does.  And most important for me, he notes that the casting of Marin Ireland as Natasha, a character often presented as a callous nouveau riche social climber,  was key to finding the core of sympathy in this woman and this ensemble.  Pendleton wants the audience to understand the human qualities of even this character in this ensemble.  “Ideally I’d like the audience to sympathize with every single person in the play, so that they’re seeing this particular life of the play through every single life that is in it.”

Set designer Walter Spangler finds more uses for a table than I’ve seen in quite some time.  The table itself begins formally set for a birthday celebration and at right angles taking up one half of the playing area, then is shifted 90 degrees and stripped of finery to dominate the playing area, set with a few random dishes and cups, a more work-a-day role in the lives of the co-habitating siblings (and extended family) in the family estate, eventually supporting an inebriated dance by military officer.  The table next serves as a stage platform (and I am now essentially ‘backstage’ for a set of beds on which characters collapse during a town fire emergency.  Finally the table is upended, no longer of use, representing the endings and leaving takings and dismantlings in the lives of our family of characters.  One 20 foot plank table representing core production values.  Stunning.  Lighting designer Keith Parham augments the atmosphere of each Act with bright illumination in Acts one and four, and dim and somber for the middle two (askew, in crisis).  And all this would  be a bit twee if not for the finely etched characters, to a man, to a woman, populating this stage and animating that production vision.  The set piece (augmented by the occasional chair or baby carriage or writing desk) supports rather than dominates the action.

From my corner view where I am intimately connected to a set of entrances, the rich smells of the soup served during one act of the play, and the block-and-tackle rigging that upends the table before Act Four and other intimate moments — and all the cherished moments of dialogue and character and touch and costume and light and shadow — this production succeeds.  As I heard one audience member while filing out the theatre behind me: “my heart still hurts”.  Yes.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 7, 2011)

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