A world about to change

The Guthrie’s “Three Sisters” keeps up appearances

by Niels Strandskov

Two dozen birch trees are arrayed along the back of the Guthrie Theater’s thrust stage for “Three Sisters.” Their white trunks and mostly leafless limbs bear mute witness to the antics of the actors in this, one of Anton Chekhov’s best-known works. Bereft of wind (even the Guthrie would balk at installing a huge fan to add that last iota of verisimilitude) the quiet birches are imbued with a dignity that should have been transferred to the cast.

“Three Sisters” is not an easy play to classify. Is it a satire? A melodrama? A pastoral tragi-comedy? To some degree it is all these things, and hence we can partly forgive the Guthrie for a flawed, although often enjoyable, staging. The play concerns the gradual decline of a Russian military family, specifically the daughters, who, a year after their father’s death, are struggling to escape the crushing boredom of provincial life by whatever means they can find. Irina (Meghan Wolf), the youngest and most idealistic, wants to liberate herself from bourgeois redundancy by finding a job. Olga (Julie Briskman), the oldest, already works in a school and is increasingly desperate to leave for Moscow while she still retains some vitality. Masha (Kathryn Meisle), the middle sister, is married to a teacher (Richard Iglewski) who is utterly unable to empathize with her. Their brother Andrei (Michael Booth) is courting a country girl (Michelle O’Neill) whom no one likes.

A couple of affairs, a fire, a troop mobilization and a duel provide copious material for drama, farce and tragedy. However, the Guthrie’s production, directed by Joe Dowling, plays nearly everything for laughs. For instance, when Irina declaims her intentions to find honest work and stop being such a parasite, it’s presented as the most absurd idea imaginable. Yet, by the end of the play, she has indeed started working. Furthermore, the issues involved were hardly a laughing matter in 1900. For the preceding several decades the Russian upper classes had been engaged in changing their ancient and sclerotic worldview. The idea of revolution was in the air (if not quite yet ready to explode). The position of women in society had been the subject of intense debate for some time. While Irina’s view of the transformative power of work might be overly rosy, there’s no excuse for making her seem like a foolish dilettante.

Although drama and tragedy are given short shrift in the Guthrie’s production, the focus on the comedic aspects of the play occasionally serves to enhance the material. Richard Iglewski in particular is masterful in his use of this license. His schoolteacher, Kulygin, strides around the stage with the perfect mixture of pomposity and ignorance. As a provincial buffoon, he has the funniest lines. As a humiliated cuckold, his hushed, tragic speech in the last act carries more weight than the hysterics of the other characters.

The production choices, while perhaps not ideal from the standpoint of the entire play, also give Michelle O’Neill, as the grasping, social-climbing Natasha, plenty of room to shine. As the only really villainous character in the play, Natasha’s dialogue has some of the best zingers. O’Neill is adept at stringing us along with a sweet, almost cloying build-up, and then administering the vicious coup de grace that leaves the other characters shell-shocked.

As with all Guthrie main-stage productions, “Three Sisters” is technically adroit and lavishly produced. It might, however, serve you better to see Chekhov done by less skilled performers who, less sure of themselves, might give the playwright more liberty to speak through them, unadulterated by hubris.

“Three Sisters” plays through May 24 at the Guthrie Theater, (612) 377-2224.

Niels Strandskov welcomes comments at [email protected]