Marriage doesn’t look very appealing in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” At best, it’s a bore. At worst, it’s soul-deadening. Yet Intiman Theater’s new production of the play shows one partnership that’s robust, productive, even inspiring — that’s the artistic union of director Bartlett Sher and playwright Craig Lucas, which already has yielded “The Light in the Piazza,” “The Dying Gaul” and other projects. One might find a production of “The Three Sisters” that uses humor to greater effect, or one handled with a more delicate touch, but it would be difficult to find one more perfectly cast, more plainly spoken or more heartfelt than this.
Lucas’ adaptation is not radical. The play is still set in a provincial Russian town more than a century ago. The Prozorov family is still in decline. The three sisters still long, futilely, to go to Moscow. But Lucas has limited the use of the Russian diminutives (“Andriushka? Andriushka?”) and quaint forms of speech that clog most translations.
The three sisters, their spineless brother, their various spouses, suitors and lovers all speak in everyday English that’s not contemporary, exactly, but easily understood by contemporary ears. The upstanding Baron Tusenbakh, musing on the future, says, “In a thousand years, someone will still sigh, ‘God, my life is horrible!,’ and at the same time, he’ll fear death and not want to die, same as now.” In these words, the sentiment is as fresh as it was when written 100 years ago (only 900 to go).
Then there’s the casting, solid throughout. Sam Catlin as Tusenbakh; Jay Goede as the magnetic lieutenant colonel Vershinin; Michael Winters as the raging, aging doctor Chebutykin are all engrossing. But the three sisters — Judy Kuhn, Julie Dretzin and Alexandra Tavares — are almost impossibly perfect.
Kuhn plays the steady, overworked, spinster teacher Olga. Dretzin is the fiery Masha, married to a small-minded man and prone to fits of black anger and blacker despair. Tavares is the young Irina, who travels from hopefulness to resignation over the course of the play. In the final act, each actor in turn becomes the focus of a farewell scene in a barren garden, and each time one thinks, Yes, her story is the heart of the play — each carries that much weight.
That’s where Sher’s staging best serves Lucas’ script. Masha and her lover, Vershinin, don’t just say goodbye at the end; they fall to the ground, clinging to each other. Olga practically has to pry her sister’s fingers off the departing soldier.
Sher, who has never staged Chekhov, wrote in a program note, “I worry that audiences who are overworked and worn out in their own struggles shall not soon put themselves through the struggle of these faraway lives in outer Russia at the turn of the last century.” Scenes as gut-wrenching as Masha and Vershinin’s farewell should put an end to that worry.
If there’s a downside to the production, it’s that it so emphasizes the dramatic, passionate side of the play that the humor — as cutting and painful as it is — gets short shrift. When good-for-nothing brother Andrey wails, “Where the hell is my life?,” he is worthy of pity and scorn. While we empathize with him, we also should be moved to laugh at his (and our) foolishness. As it is the line falls flat.
But with Chekhov, it’s always a delicate balance. His plays are so uncomplicated on the surface, yet so fraught with possibility, that they can seem radically different with each new translation, each new production. The perfect blend of dread, humor, ennui and clear-eyed philosophy is about as elusive as the city of the three sisters’ dreams.
So we might never get to Moscow. But we are lucky to have Sher and Lucas as traveling companions.