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Chicago by John Olson

Three Sisters
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Three Sisters
Usman Ally, Caroline Neff, Ora Jones and Carrie Coon
In a recent interview, playwright Tracy Letts, who adapted Three Sisters for Artists Repertory Theatre of Portland, Oregon, said "Chekhov is only as good as the actors who are up there. It will not survive bad acting." There's no surprise in saying that's not a problem in this new production of Letts' version by Steppenwolf. They've assembled a top-flight cast of ensemble members and other Chicago actors to bring Chekhov's Prozorov family to the downstairs stage. And while I'm no Chekhov scholar—this was my first Three Sisters—I would dare say Letts has succeeded in making this play accessible to first-time viewers without compromising the work. With my reference points being productions of Cherry Orchard and Seagull, this Three Sisters felt very much the work of the same writer, yet Letts has found a way to use his own dryly comic voice in the service of Chekhov's characters, without subverting the tone of the author.

The similarities of Letts' August: Osage County to Three Sisters can't be ignored, particularly since this new production is directed by August's Anna D. Shapiro. Both plays concern an extended family in crisis, and take place in a family manse outside a small, isolated rural city. In his own play, Letts explored a family's secrets, while the issues of Chekhov's Prozorov family are more on the surface, but the two families share an inability to either accept or change the things that cause unhappiness in their lives. Letts also shares Chekhov's ability to be both critical and empathetic of them. The sometimes vicious verbal barbs employed by Letts in August are toned down here, but you still hear Letts' voice in lines like Andrey's description of wife Natasha, "My wife has a good heart, but she's a mean person. Sometimes I think she's genuinely revolting." Ms. Shapiro knows just exactly the right tone for those words, so when they're delivered drolly by Dan Waller, you know he means "revolting" in the best possible way.

The color-blind casting of Shapiro's production gives some fascinating showcases for some of the area's finest actors of color. The formidable Ora Jones is Olga, the spinster schoolteacher sister who is deeply unhappy in her work and her inability to leave the rural city in which the family has lived since their late father, a military officer, was transferred there to command the nearby garrison. Jones gives Olga a palpable anxiety as she sees their little world slip away, even as she hates it anyway. Her new sister-in-law Natasha increasingly exerts control over the household and shows little respect for the sisters or the family servant. Alana Arenas is a truly slimy villainess in the role of Natasha, transitioning smoothly and convincingly from the ingratiating fiancée of the brother Andrey (Dan Waller) to the controlling lady of the manor. Usman Ally gives the soldier Solyony—a rejected suitor of sister Irina (Caroline Neff)—an initially comic tone before turning sinister as we see his threat to Irina's happiness.

Neff makes an especially touching Irina—sensitive and sad, and genuinely desirous of moving back to Moscow even as she settles for a life with the earnest and decent Baron Tusenbach (Derek Gaspar). The third sister, Masha, is played by Carrie Coon with a drolly sarcastic and fatalistic tone that is well matched to Letts' voice. Terrific character work is provided by Scott Jaeck as the sad army doctor who loved but never won the heart of the sisters' late mother, by John Judd as the Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin, trapped in a bad marriage to an offstage wife; and Mary Ann Thebus as the dotty old servant Anfisa. A special delight, as always on the Steppenwolf stage, is Yasen Peyankov, as Masha's husband Kulygin, whose wise resignation to the circumstances of the family and his troubled marriage are well served by Letts' dry and smart take on Chekhov.

The set by Todd Rosenthal is minimal, primarily depending on items of furniture, and together with Donald Holder's smart but unflashy lighting design, keeps the focus on the actors. In that regard, Shapiro's direction is in the spirit of Robert Falls' production of Seagull at the Goodman last season, though Shapiro's approach and Letts' script find more humor in this play, which by Chekhov's own contention was not a comedy while he termed Seagull as one. The lovely and melancholy score by David Singer wraps the whole package together as a satiric yet sympathetic look at a family of means who has somehow been unable to achieve the sort of happiness should have been within their reach. For me, the production felt like a great introduction to this classic play and I'll be interested in digging in to other adaptations to make comparisons.

Three Sisters will play in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through August 28, 2012. For ticket information, visit www.steppenwolf.org, the box office, or call 312-335-1650.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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