We all know whom Ira Gershwin had in mind when he wrote of “more skies of gray/ Than any Russian play could guarantee”—Anton Chekhov. Three Sisters (1901), the Russian doctor’s penultimate play, is a story of change—economic, social, and existential. Its subject is four or five years in the life of a family of the downwardly mobile class: Russia’s petty nobility at the turn of the twentieth century. Raised in Moscow and educated to speak French, English, and German, the sisters Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozorova struggle to reconcile their cosmopolitan upbringing with the provincial backwater they now find themselves stranded in. Mother and Father have died years ago, leaving a house, a small income, and the ancient nanny Anfisa to look after them. Various hangers-on and soldiers from the local regiment pay visits to the Prozorov household for the occasional soirée or romantic rendezvous. The aging doctor Chebutykin, who was once in love with the girls’ mother, dotes on the sisters. Over everything hangs an air of decadence, a feeling that the tools and lessons that have been passed down to the Prozorov siblings are obsolete and insufficient for the task ahead.
That problem is most dramatically epitomized by Andrei, the lone brother of the family, who over the play compromises on his dreams of a university education and a career in academia, at first for love but later for a life of debauchery and debt. In the play’s first act, the young man falls for and marries a shrewish local girl, Natasha, a marked step down on the social ladder. His sisters’ belittling of the girl is rewarded in kind by Natasha’s cuckoo bird–like ascendancy as the insufferable, self-appointed head of the Prozorov household: throughout the rest of the play, she harries her in-laws, precipitates Anfisa’s firing, bears a child by her lover, and generally apes the life of a noblewoman.
Yet Natasha is more than just an irritating caricature of a nouveau riche wannabe. She is an embodiment of the surging storm of proletariat resentment coming to sweep away the landed and middle classes in Russia. “An avalanche is moving down upon us,” says Baron Tuzenbach, one of the soldiers and Irina’s eventual love interest. “A mighty clearing storm which is coming, is already near and will soon blow the laziness, the indifference, the distaste for work, the rotten boredom out of our society. I’ll work, and in another twenty-five or thirty years everyone will have to work.” Little did the audience at the play’s premiere in Moscow know just how darkly prescient these words would prove to be.
A mere four decades after the freeing of the serfs, and some four years before Russia’s first, aborted revolution in 1905, Chekhov could sense the inherent fragility of the Russian middle class. Yet he was no moralist or ideologue. He was the grandson of serfs himself—as much of the social standing of Natasha as of the Prozorovs. True to his physician’s training, Chekhov is probing and analytical in his investigation, yet hesitant with his diagnosis.
If economic standing is in flux, romance in the world of Three Sisters exists in a state of paralyzing inertia. Potential lovers are already stuck in mismatched marriages, or find the right love too late; by play’s end, no onstage couple is left happy and intact. The sisters’ outlook is grim: Masha’s Vershinin has been shipped off to a posting in Poland, Irina’s Tuzenbach is dead from a duel, and Olga seems destined to a life of spinsterhood and bureaucratic drudgery.
Now through June 5, a new production of Three Sisters is running at the Sheen Center in New York City. The director Will Pomerantz’s staging in period costume is unpretentious and refreshing, set to the unobtrusive, even mournfully Slavic, accompaniment of a jazz quartet. In an ensemble piece such as Three Sisters, characterization can vary widely based on casting and direction. Here the focus falls on an appropriately awkward and gullible Baron Tuzenbach played by Tom Patterson, who bears a passing resemblance to the similarly awkward Franz Schubert, as well as on Amanda Kristin Nichols as a haughty Masha and Nehal Joshi as a bright-eyed, earnest Vershinin. Cut and merged with other roles are the soldiers Fedotik and Rode and the old porter Ferapont.
If the production has a flaw, it is its emphasis on playing each character largely for pathos, and a hesitancy to engage with some of the darker ambiguities that Chekhov exposes. Take for example the doctor Chebutykin. Played by John Ahlin, he is jovial, bumbling, and a little Falstaffian with a twinkle in his eye to match. Ahlin plays Chebutykin for sympathy, and we feel for the old man when he opens up about his failures in Act III or when he delivers the news of Tuzenbach’s fatal duel with Solyony in Act IV on the verge of tears. Yet excised is the character’s flirtation with a kind of flippant, nihilistic indifference: gone is the play’s penultimate line and stage direction, in which the doctor sits down, unfolds his newspaper, calmly hums a vaudeville tune, and intones his favorite phrase: “it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.”
Also excised from the ending, surprisingly, is each sister’s classically Chekhovian affirmation in turn that “we must live.” What remains—the final line of the play—is a forlorn prayer to discover the meaning of life’s travails: “If we only knew—if we only knew!” the sisters repeat as the house lights dim. Chekhov’s unabridged scene creates a striking dynamic between the optimism of the sisters (“We shall live! The music is so happy, so joyful, and it seems as though in a little while we shall know what we are living for, why we are suffering.”) and the dismissive passivity of Chebutykin. Chebutykin has loved and lost just as the sisters have. Yet even as the sisters affirm their hope to find meaning in an indeterminate future, Chebutykin should serve as a warning: the embodiment of that very hope given up, decades on, replaced by an attitude of banality and indifference. Lacking this dynamic, we have a scene orchestrated for anguish alone. It seems the less for it.
Go to the Sheen Center and ponder these questions yourself, as Chekhov would want you to do; after all, as the titular character in his play Ivanov tells us, “in each one of us there are too many springs, too many wheels and cogs for us to judge each other by first impressions.” Three Sisters is well suited to this minimalist, black-box auditorium, which offers an ideal opportunity for an intimate engagement with a play that is scaled to the dimensions of a cozy, often claustrophobic living room.