Laurence Olivier, who directed an acclaimed National Theater production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters and the subsequent 1970 film, cited the work as "a play of extraordinary perfection of balance and subtlety." He added, "Before the play is over, you could die for these people."
That emotional truth is once again realized watching the latest reincarnation of Chekhov's masterpiece as staged by Austin Pendleton and the Classic Stage Company. The director has harnessed the play's humor and heartbreak, with a keenly defined vision that has given his players' ample room to define the secrets of the human soul. The cast offers a stunning balance of mood and emotion that captures the wistful longings of a restless household and touches upon the playwright's strokes of irony and humor. The translation by Paul Schmidt is accessibly clear, direct and uncluttered.
The cast at CSC makes for an attractive gathering, and in the intimacy of the three-sided playing area one feels like an eavesdropping houseguest. Irina, the impulsive youngest sister, is acted by Juliet Rylance, who reveals a restless, willowy spirit and an eager wild heart. She reveals a genuine sense of despair and longing with her dreams of going to Moscow.
The sullen and intensely discouraged Masha, who is married to a fool and stifles her passion for a dashing officer, is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who gives her character a quiet, poised and studied portrait of frustration. Her overwrought farewell to her departing soldier is a fully realized act of hysterical desperation. Jessica Hecht's spinsterish Olga reveals a quietly, subtle governing strength.
As the shrewish Natasha, Marin Ireland is an aggressively vulgar, predatory creature. She is a definitive bitchy vixen. The old nanny, Antisa, is played by veteran Roberta Maxwell, who offers a strong account of devoted servitude to the male contingent, is first rate. As the inept Baron Tuzenbach, Ebon Moss Bacheach is so charming and foolish that the news of his demise in a duel comes as devastating shock to all.
Josh Hamilton as Andrey, Natasha's dissolute husband, and Paul Lazar, as Masha's cuckolded mate, never make buffoons of their characters. They remain rather sorry saps entrapped by functional family bonds.
Peter Sarsgaard is Vershinin, a dried-out local garrison commander and philosophical soldier who reveals the right touch of fading military dash. Anson Mount acts the role of the sullen Soloyony as a studious daydreamer.
Vet Louis Zorich is grand as the philosophical old doctor. Zorich has played all of the great roles from Lear to James Tyrone at Montclair's Whole Theatre with his wife, Olympia Dukakis, and he continues to etch distinctive portraits with keen insight and authority. His tipsy Chebutykin is another classic study. He offers a distinctive physician and avoids the doddering approach often used by other actors.
The impressive set, as designed Walt Spangler, finds a sprawling dinner table seating a dozen, handsomely dressed with china and silver, and a nearby grand piano. A dozen floral arrangements fill the room and mirrored walls add expansion to the action. Subtle spills of shifting light by Keith Parham accent the action, and the stylish period costumes designed by Marco Piermontese transfer the viewer to another time and place with clarity.
Beat a path to CSC.