Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
Bartlett Sher and Craig Lucas are on a roll at Intiman, beginning with a transcendent production of "The Dying Gaul" and followed by the enormous success of "The Singing Forest" and "The Light in the Piazza". This is one of those wonderful collaborations where a splendidly gifted director seems to be perfectly in tune with the voice and tone of an equally gifted playwright. This production, Craig Lucas' new adaptation of Chekhov's "Three Sisters", was an opportunity to freshen and re-present a seminal modern playwright and make these forsaken women, stranded in the isolation of the Russian countryside, hopelessly separated from the real and imagined grandeur of Moscow, once again move us through the humanity and insight of a great writer.
Sadly, it doesn't completely happen. This seems to me a truly mixed success, in which Sher beautifully handles an accessible and confident adaptation, but doesn't quite achieve the intimacy, melody and nuance of these subtle lives. The performances are certainly skillful enough, but the production doesn't quite succeed in the difficult balance of energizing characters who are filled with ennui, of entertaining with action while confronting us with the dilemma of inaction, and of taking unrealized lives and showing the fullness of their living. Most unfortunately, in this most intimate sort of drama, there is a fatal sense of distance between the characters and us, and at the wrong times, between the characters and each other. While performances are well-crafted and complex, they often seem to stand alone, and rarely create a full sense of community, of a vital and vibrant world frozen in time.
Partly, I think the problem is physical, not simply in the large stage and John McDermott's elegant set, which seems all about distances and geographic emptiness, but also in the size of the auditorium, and the physical remove we have from the actors and the action. For a play in which we would like to see every movement of every eyebrow, I sometimes felt as though I was waving at someone on the other side of a stadium. Certainly, though, some of that problem has to be in the acting and directing, which should be able to close that distance and make the performer feel close to us, whether or not they are.
At times, it certainly happens, as in the case of Kristen Flanders, as Natasha, and Michael Winters as the besotted physician, Cheybutykin. I also enjoyed the vitality of Jay Goede as the married Colonel Vershinin, with whom Masha falls in love. For me, however, the three sisters were the central problem in this production, with Judy Kuhn as a rather bloodless Olga, (Julie Dretzin) playing Masha with dizzying swings from passivity to passion, and Alexandra Tavares playing a Irina who was charming enough in her youth and energy, but not particularly affecting when she becomes a young widow. These are all three superb actresses, and it may well be that the problem was more mine than theirs, but for whatever reason I never really felt like I was close enough or invested enough in these women to live inside their home, their world, or their hearts.
Chekhov is notoriously difficult, and his movement away from melodramatic action to a theatre in which human scale allowed ordinary lives to become extraordinary drama has been so thoroughly subsumed into the modern stage that it's easy to underestimate how revolutionary it was. Beyond that, he has written characters so deeply felt and intimately drawn that they seem entirely without artifice, familiar as the face in the mirror. But it seems to me that a truly successful production of Chekhov should make us feel as if we've spent the evening as houseguests, with special access to private rooms and private moments. For me, this production felt more like a public gathering where we socialize with familiar friends, chat agreeably, and then return to our own homes.