Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first performance of “Three Sisters” by the Moscow Art Theater, the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival has mounted an honorable homage to Anton Chekhov. The staging by artistic director Bonnie J. Monte is unhurried and pointed, and features keenly drawn individual performances that do not impinge upon the play’s ensemble nature.
Haunting visual groupings and stage pictures come to life like faded daguerreotype reproductions. Monte’s tone is one of languid longings, stoic despair and heartbreaking melancholia. But the director reminds us the play is also a comedy, and balances the deep-seated sadness with the simple follies of a restlessly skittish household.
Laurence Olivier, who directed a famous National Theater production and subsequent 1970 film, called “Three Sisters” “a play of extraordinary perfection of balance and subtlety,” adding, “Before the play is over, you could die for these people.” Monte’s cast reaches out with an eager compassionate heart.
Irina, the impulsive youngest sister, is played by Caralyn Kozlowski with a restless, willowy spirit and a wild heart. Poised and spiritless, Masha, married to a fool and stifling her passion for a dashing officer, is acted by Laila Robins as a quiet study of longing and frustration. Her desperation is fully realized in her overwrought farewell to the departing soldier.
The spinsterish Olga of Angela Reed quietly defines the subtle governing strength of the household. As the shrewish Natasha, Lisa Kay Powers is an aggressively vulgar, predatory creature. Hisses are well in order.
The male contingent is first-rate. Remy Auberjonois, in his fest debut as the inept suitor Tuzenbach, is so sweetly innocent, charming and foolish that the announcement of his demise in a duel is a devastating news bulletin. Paul Mullins’ Andrey, Natasha’s dissolute husband, and James Michael Reilly’s Kulygin, Masha’s cuckolded spouse, never make buffoons of their characters: They remain sorry saps entrapped by functional family bonds.
Joseph Siravo’s Vershinin, a dried-out local garrison commander and philosophical soldier, may be a tad short of dash and passion, and Edmund Genest is acceptable as the disillusioned and tipsy old doctor but fails to reveal his inner pain. The sadistic Solony, acted by Jeffrey M. Bender, is fine, as is the doddering old housekeeper played by Kathy Mattingly.
Harry Feiner’s simple set suggests the spare last days of aristocracy, complemented by Molly Reynolds’ stylish period costumes and the subtle spills of shifting light by Steven Rosen. The inspired scene changes are illuminated by a photographer’s turn-of-the-century black-powder flash bars.