The three sisters (and one brother) of Three Sisters

Anton Chekhov never dug a deeper dramatic hole than Three Sisters, his tragicomic portrait of the singularly ineffectual Prozorov sisters, desperate to flee their deceased father’s provincial estate and return to the Moscow of their childhoods. He all but buries the play alive, filling it with self-absorbed idlers lacking any discernible urge to do anything except lament their inability to do anything. The master of plotlessness (to borrow George Bernard Shaw’s phrase) presents four long acts during which almost nothing happens. Samuel Beckett was at least considerate enough to stop after two.

The play’s stasis is as inexplicable as it is stifling. Nothing prevents the Prozorov sisters from moving to Moscow. They’ve got money, breeding, untarnished reputations—and God knows they’ve got time. Nothing ties them to their backwater town. Their social lives revolve around the dull, rude, and/or grandiloquent military personnel temporarily garrisoned in the area. Their lone tenant, the aging, self-loathing army doctor Chebutykin, hasn’t paid rent in eight months. Their brother, Andrey, once a promising academic and now a middling bureaucrat, spends his time practicing violin in his room or losing money at the gambling table. Worse, his fiancee (and then wife) Natasha strikes the sisters as a vulgar social climber with all the grace of a drill sergeant. To top it off, a fire burns half the neighborhood to the ground midway through the play.

The title characters’ incomprehensible paralysis makes Three Sisters the hardest Chekhovian nut to crack. (The playwright himself admitted it was particularly difficult to write.) Constantin Stanislavsky, who directed the original Moscow Art Theatre production in 1901, thought the play’s anti-action was easily explained: “Russian life,” he said, “kills all initiative.” That may’ve been self-evident to its first audiences, inasmuch as the Prozorovs represent a social class—low-rung rural gentry—that would soon be forced out of existence. But for us, Stanislavsky’s words are a quaint abstraction.

Still, director Anna Shapiro has found an effective nutcracker. Her uneven but ultimately satisfying Steppenwolf Theatre Company production dispenses with all but the most extreme class distinctions: Jess Goldstein’s costume design puts the gentry in fancy clothes, the soldiers in neat uniforms, and the servants in shmattes. The approach may be schematic (and render Natasha’s low rank relative to her in-laws virtually invisible), but it supplies the basics. More importantly, it lifts the burden of historical verisimilitude from the show—an apt strategy given that Shapiro and company work overtime trying to give this Three Sisters a contemporary edge. Tracy Letts‘s adaptation minimizes historical references and squeezes in the occasional bit of 21st-century vernacular (“Life sucks, so let’s live it up”). Todd Rosenthal’s set consists of the massive, warped floorboards of the Prozorov home and just a few bits of furniture. All walls have been removed, leaving the stage’s mechanical workings fully exposed, so it’s clear that we’re being invited to watch actors on a stage rather than Russians in a small-town manse.

This frank artifice gives the production a kind of Brechtian duality, with actors representing their roles rather than disappearing into them. In that context it doesn’t matter that two of the Prozorov sisters are white while the third is African-American because we believe through the actors, not in them. More importantly, Shapiro’s approach alerts us to the importance of seeing the sisters from two perspectives at once—and recognizing the distinction between what they say and what they do (or between what they say and what they might’ve said) is key to Chekhov’s drama. Throughout Three Sisters Chekhov weighs his characters’ moral agency against their missed opportunities—what Søren Kierkegaard called the “cleansing baptism of irony”—and gives this actionless play its intense psychological urgency.

Shapiro’s cast take a good while to express that irony dramatically. In fact, for most of the first two acts they overlook it almost entirely, delivering Chekhov’s disjointed, pedestrian dialogue at face value. Unless we’re clued in to the undercurrent of things the sisters can’t or won’t say, their superficial words remain just that—superficial. But once the fire erupts at the start of act three, and Chekhov makes it clear how much danger lurks out of sight, the cast start digging and deliver some of the most poignant, engrossing, pitiful, and truthful Chekhov I’ve ever seen.

As it turns out, the world of Three Sisters isn’t static at all. It’s just that things there are always almost about to happen. Taking a definitive step toward Moscow might reveal that the trip is impossible, or that it won’t cure what ails the sisters. This production ultimately captures the debilitating consequences of treating happiness as something infinitely postponable.