Steppenwolf Theatre Company presents a stunningly delicate performance of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted by Tony and Pulitzer Award winning ensemble member Tracy Letts and directed by Tony Award winning ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro. Combined with a stellar cast, Letts creates a narrative as bold and pure as Chekhov’s original while creating a sleek and refined narrative that enthralls through this dialogue driven classic.
From the moment I walked into the theater, I began to feel a bit uneasy. The stage looked weathered and worn down, backstage floor boards curled and cracking at the edges. A large framed backdrop with wintry birch trees hung over the stage, while set about the stage under spotlight were several well restored pieces of antique furniture. The walls were coarsely painted, and stage works remained exposed and gritty. The furniture, though antique, looked particularly preserved in contrast to the stage, perhaps alluding to the well-preserved lives of the main characters in Three Sisters.
Three Sisters shows us snapshots of the lives of the Prozorov family, a brother and his three sisters, as they cope with and eventually succumb to the crippling disappointment of abandoning their dreams of returning to Moscow, where they enjoyed a sophisticated upbringing. Trapped in a small provincial city, the family grows disillusioned, eventually resigning that they will enjoy no happiness in life because their dreams never come true. The final notes of the play suggest the only purpose in life is to just keep on living. There is no point in experiencing hope and joy and satisfaction, as these moments are fleeting, and memories are forgotten, and people are forgotten.
Though several years elapse throughout the play, very little action occurs on stage. Much of the action is implied in the disposition of the characters as we drop in on them from act to act. Youngest sister Irina (Caroline Neff) is exuberant and joyful in the first act, only to end up demoralized, heartbroken and pre-emptively widowed by play’s end. Middle sister Masha (Carrie Coon) begins the play bored and in a loveless marriage, seduced by the optimistic romantic Officer Vershinin (John Judd), only to be disillusioned and back in her loveless lot when the military encampment is reassigned. Eldest sister Olga (Ora Jones) bears the weight of the family’s responsibilities, but immerses herself in her duties as school headmistress, so her presence is severely limited. Brother Andrey (Dan Waller) begins as a talented youth with dreams of a professorship and an idyllic life with his meek wife Natasha (Alana Arenas), only to end up terrorized and cuckolded as Natasha bears down on the entire family and openly flirts with other men in front of him.
The adaptation drew some early criticism from Chekhov purists, who believe the essence of Chekhov lies in his undisturbed dialogue. Letts argued that he wanted to eliminate any “further act of translation”, believing that capturing the essence of the human emotion and stripping out some of the antiquated political and philosophical references would drill down to a deeper understanding of Chekhov in a modern audience. I believe Letts’ adaptation was successful, although there seemed to be hesitance to go fully modern, where parts of the script would stray toward the modern then slip back into the traditional Chekhovian vernacular. What is so incredible is just how absolutely relatable these characters are, exposing strengths and vulnerabilities in extremely realistic ways. It makes the scene where Lt Colonel Vershinin comments on how ridiculous and uncomfortable they would look to an audience two hundred years from now feel all the more ironic. At just shy over a century, there is an amazing familiarity, as if “nothing ever changes”.
Even though there is almost no action, Three Sisters remains a captivating look into the landscape of human drama, and Chekhov’s stories educate on the subtle complexities of the human character, making for a highly enjoyable evening of theater.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company will be running Three Sisters through August 26. For tickets and show times visit Steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650. Photos by Michael Brosilow, courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Company.