By David A. Rosenberg
In “Three Sisters,” the outer world of work and responsibility raises barriers that stifle the three eponymous women whose inner dream is to leave their provincial town and get to Moscow.
Olga teaches, Irina toils in the telegraph office and both are without husbands. Masha, the third sister, is unhappily married and bored with her life until a new Army officer, Vershinin, is assigned to those already stationed in town. Unfortunately, he’s not only married but his assignment is temporary. Their affair is all the more poignant for being so brief.
Into the lives of these aristocrats comes Natasha, engaged, and later married to the sisters’ feckless brother Andrei. Instead of fitting in, Natasha takes over, further contributing to the family ennui.
It’s not a play that’s heavy with plot, relying, rather, on character and feeling. But it is a work so vivid, so accomplished, that it is rightly considered a masterpiece by one of the two pillars of modern drama (Ibsen is the other).
At Yale, the new version is by Sarah Ruhl. While it’s accessible yet faithful to Chekhov, it’s also a bit tarted up and vulgarized. For example, in Brian Friel’s 1981 version of “Three Sisters,” Natasha is “having an affair with Protopopov”; in Ruhl, she’s “shtupping” him, a Yiddishism that sounds idiotic among 19th century Russian aristocrats. There are other anachronisms.
Under Les Water’s understanding direction, the acting is exemplary. Especially fine is Heather Wood as Irina. Seemingly naïve, one moment childish, the next woeful, Wood perfectly embodies the play’s swing from affected idealism to thwarted passion.
There’s laughter in “Three Sisters” but it’s laughter that recognizes the basic ludicrousness of life. It remains a striking play that feelingly probes the inner lives of characters whose dreams of escape are marred by inaction and failure.