I am blessed with a poor memory for plots. I can recall characters, atmosphere, and themes from a novel or play, but as far as the events of the story go—the “whodunit”—I can read the same murder mystery a year later and be surprised all over again at what the sleuth uncovers.
This failing can be a disadvantage, but is a blessing when it comes to more-or-less familiar works for the stage, like Chekhov’s Three Sisters—plays that a theatergoer might not experience as often as, say, Hamlet, but that he is still likely to re-encounter every few years in one setting or another. Not remembering most of the details of the plot of a play like this gives me an extra dimension of perspective: not just how good the players are and how technically adept the production, but how clearly the the director and his cast convey the story to a fresh mind.
The highly cultured, Moscow-bred title characters of Chekhov’s 1901 play have seen the scope of their lives reduced. With both parents dead, the family has decamped to a town so disconnected it’s miles from the nearest train station, and enlivened only by the temporary presence of a battalion of soldiers. The one brother, Andrey (Daniel Smith), is not only set to marry the manipulative social climber Natasha (a suitably haughty Susan C. Merenda) and relinquishing his intellectual ambitions, he is also gambling away the family’s assets. Olga, the eldest sister, hates her schoolmarm career and longs quietly for an out, but her prospects for marriage are receding; passionate Masha, the middle sister, disappointed in her milquetoast husband, takes comfort in the arms of a married soldier; and Irina, the youngest, moves from one soul-crushing job to another while resisting the advances of a good-hearted but uninspiring nobleman. Chekhov paints the decline of this Russian bourgeoisie in subtle, acidic strokes; the story resonates in any age, especially one like ours in which intellectual culture wanes in favor of ideological militancy. It’s a story, and a play, that doesn’t get old.
I have some problems with the translation used in this production; it seems needlessly old-fashioned, overly formal. Nevertheless, the poetry shines through the excellent central performances of Susan Quinn as a prematurely wizened Olga, Briana Packen as a fervid Masha, and Sarah Bonner as an initially radiant, later sobered Irina. They set a delicate tone in Chekhov’s exquisitely constructed opening scene, a clarity of presentation which unfortunately is not maintained through the rest of the first half.
One problem is that a number of the male characters are not well cast. Vincent Ingrisano’s wooden Vershinin lacks the charm that is supposed to capture Masha’s wild heart; the young, nice-looking Michael Broadhurst doesn’t convince as the supposedly unattractive Baron Tuzenbach, Irina’s yearning suitor; and Peter Guarraci plays Dr. Chebutikin, a cherished old family friend, as more or less a cipher through most of the action. Such characterization problems sadden the poor-plot-memory mind. Who are all these men, what do they signify in the hearts of our heroines, and what are they meant to show us about the curdling culture and politics of the time and place? Alas, there are few clues here.
Fortunately Mr. Smith gives Andrey the complexity the character deserves. Reluctantly greeting his boisterous military guests, cradling an infant daughter in slightly desperate fashion, blindly insisting on his nasty wife’s excellence, he’s a sad reflection of a society in decline.
The pacing problems that plague the first half (Acts I and II) recede significantly in the second half (Acts III and IV); director Alberto Bonilla seems to have a better handle on scenes with fewer characters, and it’s also in the second half that the sisters themselves dominate the action. Masha’s great “I’m bored!” scene and those that follow are most captivating. But overall, the standout performances by the three actresses, Ms. Packen’s especially, “stand out” too much from the background flaccidity.
The production is worth your time for its solid second half and for its central performances, the memory of which will remain with me much longer than the details of the resolution of the play, striking though that is (until the next time I see Three Sisters, of course). As elevated trains thunder overhead and heating pipes rattle through the scrappy Secret Theatre, these women—gloriously costumed, by the way, by Shelleen Kostabi—give their all.
Three Sisters, presented by the Queens Players, runs through March 26 at the Secret Theatre, Long Island City, Queens.