The towering white birches in Michael Greif's production of "Three Sisters" loom like prison bars in the rural Russian countryside, an apt metaphor for Anton Chekhov's titular, immobile characters, who yearn for a greater life than the one they're living.

The towering white birches in Michael Greif’s production of “Three Sisters” loom like prison bars in the rural Russian countryside, an apt metaphor for Anton Chekhov’s titular, immobile characters, who yearn for a greater life than the one they’re living. But the production itself seems confined as well, despite the feeling of expanse in Allen Moyer’s abstract set, dotted with a few pieces that evoke a remote time and place. In a play aching with unrequited love, perpetual longing and existential angst, few of the actors break out of this empty space and let their characters dig deep.

Performers all do well in bringing clarity and focus to their characters’ plights, and helmer Greif — who completes his Chekhov triptych at the Williamstown Theater Festival with this production — keeps the staging on solid ground. But that added dimension, which should command the heart at play’s end, is still missing in a staging that is just a little too cool and safe for comfort.

Things start going downhill fast at the play’s beginning for the Prozorov girls — elder Olga (Jessica Hecht), sadly married Masha (Rosemarie DeWitt) and pretty young Irina (Aya Cash) — following the death of their beloved father, an esteemed military man who raised his children to be in an upper class by themselves, despite being stationed at such a dull, remote outpost.

The good daughters dream of escaping to Moscow to find a life worthy of their intellect and station, but instead find themselves trapped, lonely and despairing, unable to extricate themselves from their rustic limbo.

Cast is filled with pros who manage — within summer stock limits — a satisfactory production nonetheless. But they don’t find enough moments of exceptional theatrical grace and surprise that should  break out like brilliant shafts of light.

The only significantly bold choice is to play a pivotal scene in very dim light. That decision may be right for the reality of the moment, but it’s wrong for auds, who are trying to stay awake amid all the talk of the meaning of life and one’s place in the universe.

Sensitive sisterly trio of Hecht, DeWitt and Cash do well in the leads, as does Stephen Ray Dallimore as a sad but still handsome Vershinin, who is in love with Masha. Manoel Felciano, as the sister’s adored and disappointing brother, and Cassie Beck, as his nouveau-bitch wife, have their moments (although Beck’s shouting from the top of a wood-block structure in the final act is a bizarre piece of staging).

Michael Cristofer is a standout as drunken doc Chebutykin, as is Jonathan Fried’s smothering Kulygin (though he offers one or two character tics too many). Roberta Maxwell is a dear as the fretful old servant who ends up being “the happiest woman in the world.” Also fine are Stephen Kunken as twisted Solyony and Keith Nobbs as the sweet but inadequate Baron Tuzenbach.

Production offers summer Chekhov light, a perfectly fine way to dip your toe in existential waters without fear of being pulled in too deep.

Three Sisters

'62 Center for Theater and Dance, Williamstown, Mass.; 511 seats; $59 top


A Williamstown Theater Festival presentation of a play in two acts by Anton Chekhov. Translated by Paul Schmidt. Directed by Michael Greif.


Sets, Allen Moyer; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Walter Trarbach; original music, Michael Friedman; production stage manager, Stephen M. Kaus; production manager, Jim D'Asaro. Opened, reviewed July 17, 2008. Runs through July 27. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.


Olga - Jessica Hecht Irina - Aya Cash Masha - Rosemarie DeWitt Chebutykin - Michael Cristofer Vershinin - Stephen Ray Dallimore Andrei - Manoel Felciano Kulygin - Jonathan Fried Natasha - Cassie Beck Solyony - Stephen Kunken Baron Tuzenbach - Keith Nobbs Ferapont - Peter Maloney Anfisa - Roberta Maxwell Fedotik - Cary Donaldson Rohde - Joe Tippett
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