by SOPHIE KERMAN
Whether because of the country’s harsh climate or its historically significant peasant population, the Russians certainly know how to deal with life’s hard knocks. Even the relatively privileged characters that inhabit Anton Chekhov‘s The Three Sisters do not have it easy. In many ways, The Three Sisters is all about the inevitable compromises we make – the dreams we give up on, the alternatives that we wish we had – as we grow up and create lives for ourselves and our families. Although happiness is elusive for the characters in The Three Sisters, the Russian way of getting through unfortunate circumstances seems to be a combination of resignation, vigorous philosophizing, and a wry awareness of just how absurd our struggles really are.
If this situation sounds bleak, that’s because it is: Chekhov’s play is pessimistic and overly talky, with characters who speak their innermost thoughts in improbable situations. What saves the play – and, even more, what makes it engaging, interesting, and funny to watch – is the Nightpath Theatre‘s sensitive and well-balanced production. Director Maggie Scanlan realizes that during life’s setbacks, we grasp for hope and humor to keep us going. This key insight keeps the play from ever becoming morose; in Scanlan’s capable hands, The Three Sisters is a meditation not on the inevitability of failure, but rather on resiliency and the importance of human connection.
From the very first scene – a name-day celebration for Irina, the youngest of the three sisters – it is clear just how much these characters’ lives hinge on their relationships. Although Olga (Mykel Pennington), the eldest, is close to her family, she is haunted by disappointment at her lack of romantic connection. Masha (Sheila Regan), on the other hand, married too young and is torn between a new romance (Edward Linder) and her resolutely loyal husband (an endearingly awkward schoolteacher played by Joey Metzger). And the idealistic Irina (Kara Davidson), whose dream of returning to Moscow is one of the play’s refrains, must choose between several unappealing suitors (one gets the sense that “Moscow” is code for opportunity in both the personal and the romantic spheres).
It says a lot about the Nightpath Theatre that even with a fourteen-person cast, each character – and his or her opinions about the others – is unique and clearly drawn. There are no weak links here, even among the supporting characters; from Baron Tuzenbach’s unrequited love (Foster Johns, who does not seem ugly enough for his character), to the doctor covering up professional failings with alcohol (Robert Larsen), to the lieutenant with a secret crush on Irina (Daniel Duren), each actor has developed both his or her character’s inner life and the face they put on in public.
A big help to these explorations of character, is, in fact, the theatrical space itself. Staged in the Walker Community United Methodist Church, the set (designed by Katie Phillips) is on two levels and extends deeply back into the altar area, creating opportunities for characters to be present on stage while remaining in the background. Though your attention will probably be focused on the action in front of you, take a moment to glance at the actors further upstage: their interesting and believable reactions contribute to their characters even when they are not involved in the dialogue.
With such a large cast, The Three Sisters does not exactly have a plot; rather, it follows all of the small decisions that ultimately make such a big difference in life. I would challenge any audience member not to recognize themselves in at least one of the characters, whether in dreams of a new job or a new romance, or during a moment of disillusionment after a tiring day at work. But we don’t go to the theater just to see ourselves in the mirror. What the Nightpath gives us in this production of Chekhov is a range of possibilities: who we could be, what we want to be, and who and what we can turn to when we discover that we might never make it to Moscow.
The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, translated by Jean-Claude Can Itallie. Presented by the Nightpath Theatre. April 26-May 12, 2012 at the Walker Community United Methodist Church, 3104 16th Ave S, Minneapolis, 55407. Tickets $10-18, except for pay-what-you-can on Monday May 7, available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/242288.