'Three Sisters'

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard topline an unusually gifted cast for "Three Sisters."

Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, a couple of charismatic movie stars can always draw a good crowd. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, the celebrity couple who attracted top-drawer talent to CSC when they appeared together in “Uncle Vanya” two years ago, perform the same service by toplining an unusually gifted cast for “Three Sisters.” Since uber-sensitive helmer Austin Pendleton also comes with the package, this production of Chekhov’s heartbreaking “comedy” takes on the kind of professional sheen that is normally beyond the reach of most theater companies of modest resources.

Walt Spangler’s set of the provincial family home where the three Prozorov sisters dream their romantic dreams is a terrific example of how to make a big visual statement on a small stage.

Using a gigantic planked table as his focal point and minimizing all other set pieces, the savvy designer suggests the comfortable but oppressive atmosphere that is stifling the spirit of everyone in the household.

Whether people are eating, dancing or sleeping on this massive piece, they are forced to do it together. Even when the three sisters climb on this platform to take refuge in an attic bedroom, there’s just no way of getting away from someone like Natasha (played to snippy perfection by Marin Ireland), the bossy and greedy sister-in-law intent on driving them out of their own home.

The tragedy of the sisters — proud, educated daughters of a general — is that they can’t be dislodged, not even to find freedom and fulfillment in Moscow, because they allow their ideals to crush them.

Olga, the eldest sister and the emotional heart of the family in Jessica Hecht’s intensely felt and painfully honest perf, lives for others. But her extreme selflessness leads her to sacrifice her own identity.

The youngest sister, Irina, her innocence tempered by self-awareness in Juliet Rylance’s performance, believes that hard work will free her. But she works so hard that she drops from exhaustion.

Natasha, more radiant than depressed in Gyllenhaal’s wholesome performance, is the artistic sister who believes in romantic love. But her choice of a married lover dooms her to loneliness.

The only member of the family who does manage a kind of escape is their weak and dissolute brother, Andrey, played by the riveting Josh Hamilton, despair written all over his fine features. But it’s the false freedom that comes from total social alienation.

Other people, of course, are drawn to the intelligent life in this cultured household, making it all the more impossible for the sisters to leave it. From Baron Tuzenbach (a thoughtful perf from Ebon Moss-Bachrach), whose marriage to Irina would seem inevitable, to Vershinin (not quite dashing enough as played by Sarsgaard), whose affair with Masha can only end in heartbreak, all the interesting men in this military town are drawn to the interesting women in this melancholy house.

Under Pendleton’s tightly focused helming, all that yearning after inappropriate lovers and unattainable dreams is palpable, both on the stage and in the air. Thesps must wear their feelings on their faces in these close quarters, the better to reflect the profound Chekhovian anguish behind all those brave promises to go on living.

Three Sisters

Classic Stage Company; 199 seats; $80 top

Production

A Classic Stage Company presentation of a play in three acts by Anton Chekhov, in a translation by Paul Schmidt. Directed by Austin Pendleton.

Creative

Sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Marco Piemontese; lighting, Keith Parham; original music and sound, Christian Frederickson and Ryan Rumery; hair, Paul Huntley; production stage manager, Timothy R. Semon. Reviewed Jan. 28, 2011. Opened Feb. 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Olga Prozorov - Jessica Hecht
Irina Prozorov - Juliet Rylance
Chebutykin - Louis Zorich
Baron Tuzenbach - Ebon Moss-Bachrach
Masha Prozorov - Maggie Gyllenhaal
Solyony - Anson Mount
Anfisa - Roberta Maxwell
Ferapont - George Morfogen
Vershinin - Peter Sarsgaard
Andrey Prozorov - Josh Hamilton
Kulygin - Paul Lazar
Natasha - Marin Ireland
Fedotik - James Patrick
Nelson Rohde - Gabe Bettio

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