By Connie Shakalis
Anton Chekhov’s four siblings, in his “Three Sisters”, want more than anything to move to cosmopolitan Moscow instead of staying stuck in their current puny town 18 miles from a railroad. So go already! Why don’t they?
This will always be one of the searing questions the play, written late in Chekhov’s short life, raises. The Prozorov family has the means to go; they have money, intelligence, health, connections. But they remain mired in their various disappointments and unfollowed dreams. The only character who attains her goals is Natasha (Julia Klinestiver), the uneducated local girl who marries upward and into the family.
Unlike members of the Russian aristocracy, which as the play begins has been declining, Natasha has the emotional tools she needs to follow through on dreams. Instead of lounging about sighing, deliberating and reading books or playing violins, she, as a good proletarian, rolls up her lace cuffs and works her plan. Nor is it a detriment to her goals that she steamrolls over anyone in her way.
“Three Sisters” was produced in 1901. When he wrote it Chekhov was suffering from illness, which would soon kill him, and it is gloomy. A central theme is the characters’ boredom with their chosen lives. Middle sister Masha, played movingly by Actors’ Equity member Abby Lee says, “Winter is a bore” and, another time, “I’m bored, bored, bored!” The sisters’ handsome brother, Andrei (Devin May), cautions, “Nobody should get married; it’s boring.” Youngest sister Irina (Tess Cunningham) blurts, “I’m bored and I hate that room.” The baron, played by a very likable Reid Henry, complains about the “God-awful boredom.”
But the production by the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance failed to bore me. Chekhov is glorious at pinning down personalities. I have known all these characters, in myself and others. Director Dale McFadden highlighted Chekhov’s fascination with the human condition and kept the pace active on Jeremy Smith’s appropriately sedate brown and tan set, graced by five bare (one “is dead”) birch trees. Katie Cowan Sickmeier dressed the soldiers in military green and the family in sepia-suggestive black, white and brown. An exception, of course, was Natasha’s unfashionably (to the three sisters) garish outfits. Defending her choice of belt color, she says, “It’s not really green. It’s more — greenish.”
IU freshman Zack Rocklin-Waltch was an endearing Kulygin, convincing himself that he loves his difficult wife, Masha, no matter what. Justino Brokaw showed his range of emotions and made a robust Chebutykin, the military doctor. Nicholas Munson was a rousing Solyony and added spark to the play’s darkness, talking about eating babies and drinking insect innards. Meaghan Deiter, was good as the maternal eldest sister with a continual I-do-too-much headache.
Julia Klinestiver was lovely as Natásha, and we could see why Andrei fell for her, at first. Later he says, “I can’t understand … why I used to (love her).” I wish their courtship scene had been longer, so we could see more of her transition from self-conscious teen to self-entitled matron. Natasha’s character is central to the story, and we need to absorb who she was before she changed. Her character is the contrasting backdrop against which all the other characters act. It is her cohort’s babies (we keep seeing poor Andrei push that stroller around) who will grow to be the new Russia.
Nicholas Jenkins played a kind and engaging Vershinin, and our hearts ached at his departure. Reid Henry was an earnest baron desiring the hand of Irina.
As usual, the Indiana University Theatre, whether or not we have siblings, keeps us thinking.