Commons Theatre Company

If you need a plot to prove there’s a play, The Three Sisters is too honest and objective to supply one. Stubbornly, Chekhov refuses to crush these ragged lives into a story; the real conflicts lie buried alive inside the characters, while their external circumstances, piled up by the playwright with bewildering randomness, remain achingly beyond control. The Prozorov sisters long for but never go to Moscow, Colonel Vershinin dreams of a better world (and a better wife) but leaves Masha for the ones he’s stuck with, and to excuse his malpractice the old doctor keeps on boozing; it confirms his credo that “We’re not here anyway.” On at least two occasions Chekhov’s characters invoke the metaphor of choking on life. It’s a fit description because, without resorting to such luxuries as a climax and resolution, Chekhov makes you taste the drift and isolation that seal off his characters from each other and themselves. Only the Revolution itself (16 years in the future) will ever shake up this very provincial backwater.

If you had to pick the play’s antagonist, it would be time itself. As Olga says near the end, “Nothing works out as we would have it,” and, at the very end, “If only we could know . . .” (Not knowing is why, since plot implies purpose, the moments are all that matter in The Three Sisters–as, not at all incidentally, they do in life itself.) From Irina’s name-day party that opens the “action” in full springtime to the expected and unforeseen farewells that, almost four years later, close it in autumn, time’s ticking strips away great and small expectations as that season does leaves: spinster Olga becomes the school headmistress without wanting to; Masha and Irina lose their lovers for reasons no one can justify, only witness (so judgment itself becomes irrelevant); abandoning any dream of a university career, brother Andrey grows fatter and stupider and mortgages the house to pay his gambling debts–and, ugliest change of all, Natasha, the naive and awkward shop girl Andrey marries out of boredom, gradually becomes a caricature of coarse and constant selfishness. (Chekhov’s insensitive power-trippers always get their way–but, he being Chekhov, they end up no happier than the rest.)

It’s no wonder the present tense is heard so seldom in this play; the present isthe last place anyone here wants to be trapped in. Though it’s all anyone has, it is a mere prelude to the most universal of human evasions, the glorious future. And when the terrible reckoning inevitably arrives (“Where did my past go?” Andrey chokes out), there’s usually no one to hear the call for help.

The good Dr. Chekhov is not interested in performing emotional autopsies on living characters. He only wants to suggest their various, unconnected moments of truths. Chekhov’s great interpreter, Stanislavsky, was right to insist that the Moscow Art Theatre play only those moments, not some master plan the facts don’t warrant.

Thanks be to Thespis that Calvin MacLean, director of the Commons Theatre Company’s uncommon season opener, is not pursuing some phantom at the cost of Chekhov (like the National Theatre of Great Britain’s grotesquely vaudevillian Cherry Orchard)–the surface is complex enough without whipping the subtexts into a concept. The Commons has also secured the rights to the American premiere of Michael Frayn’s new translation. Happily, it’s a supple and not unlyrical effort that seems to put very little between us and Chekhov.

So do the performances. With the same indirect sympathy that went into the writing, and with little resort to technique, the 15 actors rely on elimination to force out their characters’ bedrock desperation. Like trees that reveal their true shapes when they drop their leaves, the actors strip their roles to breaking-point basics. As the oldest and most protective sister, Judith Easton’s Olga is a tragicomic study in the futility of frustration, of endlessly and helplessly having to react to things she can’t alter anyway. Surly from the start, Ellyn Duncan’s Masha has a harder edge to her disillusionment; it’s a good choice that makes Masha’s calamitous and clumsy last-chance affair with Vershinin (an earnest if not overly focused James Bohnen) all the more explicable. Rebecca MacLean plays Irina, the youngest and most self-contradictory Prozorov (Irina clings to a gospel of work but hates every job she drudges through), as if to provide once and forever the definitive picture of hope yielding to life–in just three short autumns. Particularly in her loveless romance with the doomed Baron Tusenbach (portrayed by Dan Rivkin with dogged and ineffectual affection), MacLean makes certain Irina’s pointless compromises are feelingly there.

Mark Richard deftly cloaks Andrey’s many little defeats in an impenetrable distractedness; it’s the protectiveness you’d expect from an academic mediocrity. (Revealingly, Andrey loves to confess his secrets, like his fury at being saddled with a squalid wife, to people he knows won’t understand him, like the senile servant Ferapont [Michele Ovanni Filpi]; the device rams home Andrey’s isolation.) As Natasha, Colleen Crimmins grasps and schemes her predatory way with a greedy gusto that feels very American. Playing Masha’s cuckolded husband, the smug Latin teacher Kulygin, Paul Thompson exudes a smarmy see-no-evil complacency (but a few school-masterish tricks would make the character more interesting). Finally, solid work comes from Corinne Lyon as doddering Anfisa, Tom Webb as the resignedly incompetent army doctor Chebutykin, and Greg Bryant as Tusenbach’s sadistic rival Captain Solyony, Chekhov’s only example of truly gratuitous malice.

With Greg Weber’s sumptuous and flexible set (only the fourth act, set outdoors, seems less than naturalistic), Carl Forsberg’s moody lighting, and some well-defined period costumes by Lynn Sandberg, this is technically as well as artistically among the Commons’s finest three hours. In particular, The Three Sisters benefits from their excellently renovated “new” upstairs theater, now a modified three-quarter thrust that expands the seating capacity to 105 well-aligned seats. I hope The Three Sisters fills them all.