When parents die, it isn’t easy realizing that nobody wants the stuff that helped define their remembered lives. No one wants their mother’s exquisite silver service or set of lovely bone china, or the ornate dining room furniture with its massive china cabinet. Forget, also, the lace tablecloths and, good lord, their grandmother’s lace dresses that were so carefully preserved, thinking they might be worked into a great granddaughter’s wedding dress someday. Forget the wedding dress, too, because the granddaughter has a gofundme.com page where the guests are expected to pay for her beach-wear wedding in Puerto Vallarta.
How times have changed. That sort of take-charge determination isn’t part of the lives of the daughters in Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” in Libby Appel’s new version playing at Clarence Brown Theatre”s Carousel Theatre. “It’s impossible to know what will be important to people in the future,” says Colonel Vershinin, well played by Christian Gray.
The sisters are Olga, the oldest and a school teacher, played by Emily Kicklighter; Maria, the unhappily married middle daughter, played by Carlene Pochette; and Lauren Pennline’s Irina, the youngest who, at first, seems hopeful and joyful because it’s her birthday. They dream of returning to Moscow, where life had been wonderful when they were younger, before their military father uprooted them to live in a far away town where he was assigned.
But, at the time of the play, their father has been dead for two years. Their brother, Andrei, is the only sibling who has built any sort of life for himself.
Instead of the scholar they all hoped he would be, he is part of the town bureaucracy. He also has a wife and a child. His wife, Natalya Ivanovna, irritatingly played by Charlotte Munson, is a provincial. She doesn’t understand the sisters’ problem with life, so she proceeds to push them and their servants, especially the old and mostly useless, Anfisa, mutteringly played by Nancy Duckles, out of hers.
In truth, Moscow has ceased to be a place for the sisters. It’s an abstraction of a better place and better times. It’s just the “something” they believe in. So we have talk, almost three hours of it, and the illusion of action with soldiers that come and go, offering the women things or taking things away.
The emptiness that takes up so much of the sisters’ lives is perfectly visualized in Jelena Andzic’s set design, with a few furnishings arranged toward the outer edges of an entirely empty center. A higher platform is crowded with a dining table with 12 chairs and a piano. Eating is often the only meaningful activity, in the theater and otherwise.
The decision to stage “Three Sisters” in the round, in the Carousel Theatre, with the audience seated three-fourths around the stage, was wise. It gets the audience close to the characters, allowing us to “see through them.” It also lets director Michael Fry move characters on and off stage by passing through the audience. It’s a double illusion that puts the characters into the audience as much as the audience into the play.
And there is love: the devotion of the three sisters to each other; Maria’s worn-out love for her husband, very well played by Christopher Tramantana, who is optimistically clueless; Maria’s mostly-imagined, adulterous love affair with the Colonel, who has a wife and two daughters; and the long-ago love old Dr. Ivan Ramanovich Chebutykin, captivatingly played by Roderick Peeples, secretly had for the girls’ mother.
The pull that keeps us caught up in the non-lives in “Three Sisters” is the sense that at least part of them is part of ourselves. Many of us live lives of “what if,” “I wish I had,” and “why didn’t I.”
But, as Colonel Vershinin says, “Life is about creating and striving for a future happiness we will never have. Happiness is for future generations.” In the end though, as Maria notes, “We have to believe in something, or life is empty.”