Quiet Desperation

“The mass of men,” wrote Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”  This might well be the signpost hanging over Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a tale of the Pozorov sisters—Olga, Masha, and Irina—as they pine for a life of excitement in Moscow, their former home, while providing the only diversion for a military regiment garrisoned in a provincial Russian town.  The drama of the play comes from allowing us into these lives long enough to watch everything change for the worse. A depressing prospect, indeed.  Yet what makes it entertaining is Chekhov’s view of life as not essentially tragic, so that touches of humor and tenderness, of awkwardness and passion, and other displays of the pathos of personality, involve us but let us keep ourselves a bit distant.  Chekhov’s sisters are stuck there, but we get to watch them for awhile then leave, and one’s feeling about the experience, in the end, is shaped by that final tableau of the trio clumped at the edge of the stage, so near they might almost step off and be free, joining us in the world we’re trapped in, but instead they remain there to mirror for us stoical resignation (Olga), shattered romance (Masha), and dashed hopes (Irina).

Much rides on the last because, as the youngest, Irina is still too young to be crushed and, in this more brisk than yearning version now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, translated by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Les Waters with the Berkeley Rep, she gives us a vision of “the modern woman” forced to make her way herself.  We might well say that the death of the dream of a nostalgia-tinged Moscow that no longer exists, and the desire, in Irina, “to work” and, in Olga, “to know,” and the acceptance, in Masha, “to live,” indicate an improvement in their condition at last.

The best thing about this production is Ruhl’s thoughtful translation which manages to bypass some of the more stilted aspects of translated Chekhov, albeit with liberties—would the doctor really say “shtupping”?—that mostly serve comic purposes.  The feel of the language seems right for the characters, so that even the philosophizing seems character-driven rather than abstract.  Though that’s not to say the production has mastered the play.  The main problem is that there’s too much stage, too much space.  The production has to work hard to create any sense of intimacy on the University Theater stage, and I’ve rarely been so aware, watching a play, of characters as actors standing in place to speak.  This was particularly the case in the final Act outdoors where the set’s huge and uninviting porch simply overwhelmed what the scene needs to express.

Earlier scenes fare better: the best being Act Three in the upstairs bedroom while a fire rages in the town, and the first half keeps the action moving with liveliness between intimate conversations in the foreground and activity at the large diningroom table upstage, and yet, in the opening night show, there was a static quality that seemed to get between us and these people we’ve dropped in on.  The times when we were made to feel like privileged onlookers worked best—Irina being petted by Chebutykin, Vershinin reacting to a message about his wife, the sisters gossiping about their brother Andrei—and one of the marvels of the play is that every character—in a cast of thirteen—gets at least one “moment” to impress a personality upon us.

For that reason, it’s a play where “the support” is extremely important, and much commendation goes to James Carpenter as the fond, drunk, irascible, and perhaps even wise Chebutykin, to Sam Brelin Wright as the dour, mocking and ultimately dangerous Lermontov-wannabe Solyony, to Barbara Oliver, a figure of focused pathos as the used-up servant Anfisa, to Richard Farrell as the servant Ferapont, exhausted by indulging his superiors’ whims, and especially to Emily Kitchens as the repellently selfish Natasha, first Andrei’s fiancée, then wife, whose passive aggressiveness and single-minded conquest of the Pozorov household is both comic and chilling.  A word too for the young soldiers: as the boisterous Fedotik, Brian Wiles knows how to fill a space, and as the more bashful Rode, Josiah Bania made the most of his parting echoes.

In the larger roles, Keith Reddin's Kulygin seems neither comic nor pathetic enough as a cuckolded school master determined to be “content”; Thomas Jay Ryan as Irina’s dutiful beau Baron Tuzenbach gains in stature as the play progresses, his leavetaking from her finding its perfect expression in a request for coffee; as Vershinin, Bruce McKenzie has the bearing of a serious man surprised to find himself still capable of frivolity and affairs of the heart; we sense that we, like the other characters, could never really know him.

Then there are the Pozorovs: Alex Moggridge, as Andrei, seems too often simply awkward, as in Act Three, not giving us any insight into a man who marries a vain woman, unseats his sisters, and nearly gambles away their patrimony; as Irina, Heather Wood takes us from giddy youth to a more weary version quite well, while Wendy Rich Stetson is good both at Olga’s stoicism and her peevishness, together making up the sister most long-suffering but also most secure in herself; as Masha, the linchpin of the play, the sister who should be settled but is anything but, who flirts and wins and loses, Natalia Payne was best at moments of unspoken emotion—as for instance flying to join Vershinin or, with her sisters, staring off into the future at the end—but should be brought up more in the mix: Masha isn’t simply petulant, she’s the throwback to the 19th century novels of adultery—the woman who chose not to make her own way, as Olga and Irina do, but instead married her way into an eternal limbo.  The play, we might say, is only as strong as Masha’s suffering.  In the show on opening night, she was too easily eclipsed, thus slighting the “confirmed desperation” of her love for Vershinin.

On the whole: a well-played and respectful classic needing a bit more fire and movement.

Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov A new version by Sarah Ruhl, with Elise Thoron, Natalya Paramonova, and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati Directed by Les Waters Yale Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre

September 16-October 8, 2011