Anton Chekhov’s vast, gorgeously imagined tapestry of intersecting Russian lives barely survives the shaky dramaturgy plaguing Christopher McElroen’s inexpert staging, but several adroit performances and some nice production design salvage the less subtle moments in Classical Theater of Harlem’s “Three Sisters.” Large swaths of the production become a tug-of-war between academic Laurence Senelick’s unspeakable translation (“benignant?” really?) and fine actors like Reg E. Cathey and Amanda Mason Warren. When it really counts, though, the thesps frequently score — if nothing else, this production demonstrates how unbreakable Chekhov’s text actually is.
Like “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters” deals partly with the incursion of the persecuted but goonish nouveau riche into the fanciful world of upper-class landowners, who are almost drained of all that old money.
But Chekhov being Chekhov, this is just the tip of the iceberg — there’s also a literal platoon of eligible bachelors in town, one of whom (Tuzenbach, beautifully played by Joshua Tyson) is desperate for the love of passionless youngest sister Irina (Carmen Gill, who digs the knife in deeper by playing her as adorably nice). Vershinin (Roger Guenveur Smith, who’s in an Oscar Wilde play for some reason), is looking for love, and finds it with married middle sister Masha (Warren, who brings depth and nuance to a potentially hateful character).
The big reveals come across just fine in McElroen’s production, but some of this play’s most important plot points are merely suggested, and the staging never quiets down enough for them to sink in. Since there are strong hints at the beginning and end of the play that family doctor Chebutykin (Cathey, late of “The Wire”) may be Irina’s father, the director hasn’t done himself any favors by casting a Masha and an Irina who share facial features and an Olga (the excellent Sabrina LeBeauf) who looks adopted.
This is a busy play, and what it needs most is a firm hand guiding the audience from playing area to playing area as the show’s interlocking stories unfold. The danger a director working with actors of varying skill levels on “Three Sisters” (or any Chekhov play) faces is distraction, and that’s this production’s biggest problem. When Solyony (Phillip Christian, overdoing the weirdness of a weird character) and Tuzenbach begin to debate, it’s hard not to mentally wander across the stage to see what some of the other characters are doing.
As Chebutykin, Cathey, for instance, has such an astonishingly strong stage presence that he’s instantly the center of attention whenever he enters. He’s not intentionally upstaging the other actors; he’s just fun to watch, especially since Chekhov leaves him lying around like a thoughtful host with a plate of hors d’oeuvres.
Paradoxically, this actually slaps plaster over some of the production’s largest holes. McElroen may not make sure we understand the central resentment between odious Natasha (Daphne Gaines) and the Prozorov sisters, but Chekhov gives us so much to chew over that we ultimately forget to be annoyed. The show is aided immeasurably by designer Troy Hourie, whose all-Persian-carpets-all-the-time set is slowly rolled up and taken away as the Prozorov estate decays.
Even with its many flaws, it’s difficult not to recommend this production. “Three Sisters” is so hard to stage that it doesn’t get done often enough, so theatergoers should jump at the chance to be moved by images like Masha, simultaneously pitiable and infuriating, weeping over her lost lover before her awkward, loving husband Kulygin (Jonathan Peck). There’s a great deal of moving characterization here, but a better staging would provide much, much more.