In the 20-plus years I’ve been attending the Arden, I’ve seen many fine shows, but this is something special. Faced with the challenge of one of the greatest modern plays in the repertoire, director Terry Nolen has upped his game. This project, a labor of love and collaboration with artists from Trinity Rep in Rhode Island, was two years in the making, and it shows in every detail. Arden’s Three Sisters is always intriguing and often triumphant – a must-see!
Critics will differ on which of Anton Chekhov’s major plays is his finest, but for me Three Sisters wins hands down. Where the others are steeped in 19th Century well-made-play dramaturgy, this one (written in 1900) is astoundingly modern in its looseness and ambiguity. There are no “big moments” – only a parade of the seemingly small ones that make up a life.
Chekhov’s focus is the three Prozorov sisters – Olga, Masha, and Irina – who are living in a provincial Russian town. Surrounded by friends and family (Masha is unhappily married, Olga and Irina are single), they experience moments of hope, but more often frustration. Though all three women are in their 20s, they seem much older – “worn out” is a phrase heard often in Curt Columbus’s fine new translation.
As much as the Prozorovs wish to move forward – represented by the iconic dream of returning to Moscow – their impetus is defeated by unexplained but inexorable torpor. My favorite moment in the play, a silent one, perfectly distills the problem – at a dinner party, an admiring friend gives Irina a child’s toy top. As it spins, the guests, frozen in non-comprehension, simply stare.
That image is superbly realized here – one of many. Nolen’s production adopts a framing device wherein we’re watching his cast rehearsing Three Sisters. It’s not a new idea – we’ve seen something similar in Louis Malle’s film, Vanya on 42nd Street – but the beauty here is that it continues to change throughout. I won’t spoil the pleasure of it, except to say this is no single “concept,” but an evolving vision that redefines the play.
The evening is full of revelatory moments. I was initially dubious at the amount of singing and dancing that began each act, but it really built the necessary sense of camaraderie, and established a welcome brisk pace. More than ever before, I could really understand that Three Sisters is a comedy (a dark one, but a comedy) as Chekhov called it. The various male characters – brother Andrei, also friends and neighbors (some of them garrisoned soldiers) who surround the Prozorovs – have never seemed more linked to the sad clowns of Shakespeare. These roles are notably well taken at the Arden by a host of favorite local actors, including Luigi Sottile, Sam Henderson, James IJames, Louis Lippa, Jake Blouch, and the great Scott Greer, who as the sad, funny Dr. Chebutykin, gives a career-defining performance. As the elegant Colonel Vershinin, Ian Merrill Peakes is touching, funny, and sexy – it’s easy to understand why Masha falls for him.
But the play, of course, belongs to the sisters. Here they are an unusually cohesive and, happily, age-appropriate group (tradition often has them played by older actresses). As Olga, Sarah Sanford is poignantly self-effacing, making the character more likeable than she often seems. Katharine Powell is a tart, sophisticated Masha, and Mary Tuomanen a refreshingly forthright Irina, free of coy ingénue mannerisms.
The design – Eugene Lee’s scenery especially – is also first-rate. Hats off to the entire Arden creative team! This Three Sisters is a cultural event that sets a new standard.
Through April 20, Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org