Three Sisters - An Arresting Production

By Bob and Karen Isaacs

Yale Rep is presenting an arresting translation and production of Chekhov’s drama Three Sisters adapted by the well known American playwright Sarah Ruhl. It is co-production with the Berkeley Rep. Though it seems to lack its Russianism, it still is faithful to Chekhov -- Ruhl doesn’t change the setting or the characters - but perhaps because of its lack of provincialism it has a wider intellectual and emotional range.

Three Sisters tells of a well-educated upper-middle class family living in a provincial city in Russia; they moved from Moscow many years ago when the father - an army officer - was transferred there. He has since died and the remaining members of the family - three sisters and a brother, Olga, Masha, Irina and Andrei, all dream of returning to Moscow where they imagine their present dull lives will be more fulfilling.

The eldest, Olga, stoically played by Wendy Rich Stetson, is a school teacher in a job that at best could lead to being headmaster; a morose Masha is played by Natalia Payne, unhappily married to a ferociously pedantic school teacher, Kuygin, played perfectly by Keith Reddin. The youngest, the innocent Irina, by Heather Wood, is just starting to live - she has suitors, most especially a slightly older military officer, Tuzenbach, called “The Baron,” who also has dreams but these are of doing “useful work” - and is full of optimism.

The brother, Andrei (Alex Moggridge captures the lackadaisical character perfectly) dreams of being a professor but is wasting his life. Eventually he marries a woman from the town, Natasha, who proves to be dominating and crass. Emily Kitchens is terrific in this role – manipulative and vulgar. You will grow to hate her.

Over the course of several years their lives continue their dreary paths, but the world around them is changing as the Army unit - which has provided what they believed to be the only culture in the community - is being transferred.

Before the play ends each of them reaches a climax in her life - Olga becomes principal of this provincial school; Masha has an affair with the married colonel; and Irina is about to be married to “The Baron” who has resigned from the Army, but he is killed in a duel. They see their lives as over, each sister stuck with what she has, a hopeless dream.

Yale has produced many of Ruhl’s plays; she has an interesting take on the classics We have enjoyed her The Clean House, Eurydice but were less enthusiastic about Passion Play. Unlike some adaptors, she does not feel it necessary to make major changes; just to put the language in a more accessible form without resorting to inappropriatemodernisms. In Three Sisters, a play about quiet desperation particularly for women who had few choices at that time, Ruhl lets feel their unhappiness. And, due to the excellent acting and intelligent direction of Les Waters, you feel so much more.

Ruhl’s adaptation and Waters’ direction also capture the comic elements that are often overlooked in this piece. Chekhov, opposing the direction of Stanislavski, always insisted that his plays were comedies.

The settings by Annie Smart are terrific and comfortably changed to depict different locations and time.

Finally, you will not quickly forget the final scene as the stage goes dark which will be etched on your memory like a famous statue or painting. You will leave the theater truly feeling loss for these sisters.

Three Sisters is at the Yale Rep’s University Theater through Oct. 8. For tickets and information call the box office at 203-432-1234.

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers October 5, 2011 and online at

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