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Review: Three Sisters at Studio Theatre

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Three very different girls— Alana, Cara and Cori Sue—headed off to see Three Sisters, Studio Theatre’s production of Anton Chekhov’s 1901 play about three not-so-different, vibrant, young sisters relocated in adulthood to a parochial Russian town, following idyllic childhoods in Moscow.

As a Russian playwright famed for emotional character landscapes punctuated by metaphor-peppered prose and malleable boundaries of time, Chekhov’s dish-of-choice is nihilism and the layered malaise of existential despair. (Which tends to pair nicely with a full-bodied Merlot.) The expansive, four-act play does undeniably center on the sisters’ bond, and transport you through four years of their lives spent longing for something more—whether that be a new career, a different husband, or simple self love —a longing that manifests as a shared fixation on returning to Moscow.

Act One opens with a jolly party of guests, hosted by the women at the home they share with their brother, Andrei. With a handful of locally-stationed soldiers and longstanding house staff, the evening is one of heavy drinking, singing, dancing, and hints of interpersonal tensions, which Chekhov painstakingly begins to shape through his trademark long form, narrative prose. We first hear from middle sister Maria, whom, embittered by a dull and thankless marriage, is keen to explore her forbidden chemistry with a spirited soldier. We next meet beautiful and ambitious Irina, the youngest sister with a laser-like focus on finding purpose through labor, to the dismay of her many suitors. Then we have good-natured Olga, the eldest and most outwardly agreeable sister, and brother Andrei, keeper of the family fortune. Groomed as an intellectual destined for something special, Andrei’s young love for the insufferably common Natasha is inexplicable to his siblings.

Bridget Flanery, Emilie Krause, Ryan Rilette, and Caroline Hewitt in Three Sisters. Photo: Teresa Wood.

Not gonna lie, this stuff is pretty dense. It wasn’t until I was sitting there, fully committed, that I considered the gargantuan task of adapting turn-of-the-century Russian literature for our modern 14th Street audience. Admittedly, this realization made me a little panicky about the course of my life for the next two hours. Luckily, that feeling didn’t last long, as general disillusionment with life is a topic that tends to retain its relevance.

Particularly adept at coalescing deep, character-focused snapshots of individual lives into profound commentaries on the human condition, Chekhov quickly hits a nerve with the siblings’ joint fixation on Moscow as a powerful, recurring symbol of empty longing. As their new lives take root, the sisters’ yearning intensifies for simpler, more joyful times – before the deaths of their parents upended the family and their comfortable lifestyle. Soon, we discover that Irina hates working. (Let this be a reminder that the monotony of a 9-5 transcends space and time!) Maria’s efforts to move things along with the soldier have only drawn her husband closer and her mind to the brink of madness. And beneath Olga’s hollow satisfaction simmer the voiceless frustrations of a hapless doormat, mercilessly bullied by The Neurotic Monster Formerly Known As Natasha, who rules the house with a kind of toxic passive aggression that could turn even the sturdiest of individuals into a weepy wreck. Andrei, starved of his great potential and rightful future, shrouds his own ineptness in solitude and compulsive gambling, through which he rapidly squanders the family’s only foreseeable livelihood. (Oh, woe is the empty promise of white male privilege.) As it turns out, the siblings’ mutual longing for more – for Moscow! – is not simple sentimentalism or nostalgia, but a mirage of wholeness that, together, they can imagine, but, as individuals, never can quite grasp.

 

Caroline Hewitt, William Vaughan, Ryan Rilette, Emilie Krause, Josh Thomas, Craig Wallace, Ro Boddie, and Nick Torres in Three Sisters. Photo: Teresa Wood.

It’s worth noting how the sisters’ bond never waivers, even as they face the deeply personal struggles that come with age. (Girls, can we relate.) Bound by blood, they hold one another close, and refuse to let their disappointment with life and self divide them. Is this an indication of our tendency to miss small nuggets of meaning buried within the monotonous drone of our daily existence? Was Chekhov spotlighting how our shared longing for more is what makes us, at once, alone and not alone?

The whole thing reminded me of that saying, “ignorance is bliss,” so I Googled it. It was penned by Thomas Gray, who stands out amidst a mostly forgettable cast of pre-Romantic English poets for his lonely depictions of the “truths” of human nature. It’s interesting to think that, even with a century and massive cultural and intellectual shift between them, Chekhov and Gray both rejected the Romantics’ exaltation of individual experience and self-expression in favor of this idea that, perhaps, the complex behavioral mechanics of consciousness actually are just diversified outputs predicated on common misery. (I could use that bottle of Merlot, right about now.)

As three very different woman, we each, obviously, had our own interpretations. Alana, the romantic Italian highlighted how the meaning of life is to love and to share that love with others. Cara, the steadfast New Englander with liberal arts upbringing, connected the characters’ bleak existence with the stark infinity of a birch forest that grows up and through the set. And yours truly, the dramatic and assured Russian, resolutely declared, “They’re right. It’s just pain, pain and more pain, and then you die.” For us, what it comes down to is this: when we’re together, the banality of one’s everyday existence really doesn’t seem half bad. Especially when there’s brunch involved.

Bridget Flanery, Emilie Krause, and Caroline Hewitt in Three Sisters. Photo: Teresa Wood.

It’s impossible to review Three Sisters without mentioning Studio Theatre’s concurrent play, No Sisters. Always and ever-the-more creative, Studio is running a concurrent play, No Sisters, wherein the actors of Three Sisters carry out a separate play between scenes, in an adjacent theater, in parallel No Sisters. (And, you’d be correct in assuming that this excludes the three actresses playing the three sisters). Presented in four acts, No Sisters is described as a “weird-ass existential Chekhovian green room” and is written and directed by Studio’s ever-so-creative Artistic Director, David Muse.

Three Sisters is playing at Studio Theatre through April 23 and tickets begin at $28.

Studio Theatre
Washington, D.C.
(202) 332-3300

BitchBiz: Bitches Who Brunch is partners with Studio Theatre. While this review was written independently by us, we do receive compensation from the company.

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