Classic plays can lose their impact unless productions are periodically rethought for contemporary mindsets. For Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” PlayMakers Repertory Company’s new producing artistic director, Vivienne Benesch, applies a boldly fresh approach to this 115-year-old tragi-comedy, breezily engaging without sacrificing the playwright’s themes.
The tale of three Russian sisters, their family members and their marital and amorous dilemmas, is sketched out in small, almost random moments expressing the characters’ longings, irritations, disappointments and questions about life’s meaning. Some productions bog down in these contemplative musings, especially with so little real action involved. Benesch avoids the pitfalls with constant but fully justified movement, dispatched with invigorating intensity throughout the playing space.
Also, because highly skilled actors are needed to make the introspection work, many productions cast performers older than their characters’ stated ages. Benesch’s cast, especially the sisters and the soldiers that love them, is appropriately youthful. Benesch has them chatting, complaining, wooing and philosophizing with energetic vitality, sweeping the play along tightly.
The pace is aided by Libby Appel’s brand new translation, employing a straightforward, conversational style that avoids flowery phrases and old-fashioned sentence structure. Although Benesch and Appel can’t quite overcome the final scene’s loss of steam, with characters repeating well-established conflicts and stretching out the ending, the pair’s efforts pay off handsomely.
Allison Altman gives Irina, the youngest sister, age 20, an initial fervent hope for love and happiness that’s eaten away by Irina’s indecision over a marriage proposal from the ordinary, unexciting Baron Tuzenbakh (puppy dog-like Daniel Bailin) and her obsession with wanting to live in Moscow. Arielle Yoder makes middle sister Masha (23) a volatile, desperately unhappy person, saddled with a boring, school-teaching husband, Kulygin (officious Daniel Pierce) and conflicted by her burgeoning love for visiting lieutenant-colonel Vershinin (smooth-talking Joshua David Robinson). Marinda Anderson gives upbeat strength to Olga, the oldest sister (28), who is surrogate mother to her siblings.
As their brother Andrei, Benjamin Curns ably reveals the character’s weaknesses, including his cluelessness about the ambitions of his new wife, Natalya (calculating Carey Cox), who worms her way into controlling the family. Ray Dooley turns in an affecting portrait of disillusioned military doctor Chebutykin, and Schuyler Scott Mastain finds the quirky center of troubled staff captain Solyony, in love with Irina.
The marvelous sets by Alexis Distler, evoking the Russian countryside with raw, birch-like wooden columns and walls, are beautifully complemented by Tracy Christensen’s stylish period costumes. Peter West’s glowing lighting and cellist Isabel Castellvi’s rendering of Ari Picker’s melancholy score complete the highly professional staging.
Those who know the play well may miss some innate Russian-ness and deeper delving into characters’ psyches, but, especially for newcomers, this version allows easy access to Chekhov’s astute examination of the human condition.
What: “Three Sisters” presented by PlayMakers Repertory Company
Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27-30, Feb. 2-6; 2 p.m. Jan. 30-31, Feb. 7
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org