6:08 PM CDT, July 8, 2012
A model facade of a lovely house — lights burning brightly in the little windows but located, alas, in a dull provincial town — now hangs high over the Steppenwolf Theatre stage. For anyone who saw "August: Osage County," the last great collaboration between the remarkable Chicago trio of writer Tracy Letts, scenic designer Todd Rosenthal and director Anna D. Shapiro, the looming sight of such a domestic container for human angst gives one's heart a jolt.
They may seem like opposite species, but Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters," like Letts' "August," is about a fevered provincial family out of sync with its environment and struggling to figure out who or what's to blame. (Themselves? Disappointing parents or lovers? Merely the inevitable trajectory of life itself?) And this singularly talented triumvirate has a great history of showing us otherwise ordinary people driven to climbing the walls.
That initial excitement never quite pans out in Shapiro's new production, which has some very skilled actors and highly arresting moments — especially in the force of its individual confrontations — but which lacks a driving pulse, a cohesive point of view weaving the scenes together, sufficiently high stakes and a unifying umbilical cord that can connect the three unhappy sisters. These famous Moscow fans need to be attached to each other, and to the time, place and community in which they exist, miserably.
Most notably, this production also struggles to reveal to us the vulnerability of these women, the universality of whose dilemmas and the profundity of whose observations on happiness or the lack thereof are what make this an astonishingly wise and rewarding play.
It's not so much that Letts is translating Chekhov rather than writing his own play. His adaptation of "Three Sisters" (originally written by Chekhov in 1900) is a tad zestier and more colloquial than most translations — one does not find terms like "yuck, "gross" or "crabby" in the Eugene K. Bristow version, and these siblings now let fly a few four-letter words — and some may find that it clashes with either the period setting or that famous Chekhovian nuance. Nuance, shmuance. These are frustrated, openhearted young women, and there is no reason for their language to be stilted or archaic. This is in no way an invasive adaptation.
Actually, Letts' main achievement here is to make Chekhov more emotional, accessible and active: "When you grab at happiness and just get little handfuls, and then lose it all anyway," Letts' Masha observes, in her moment of revelation, "you get bitter." At that point, actress Carrie Coon thumps her chest: "And you stop paying such careful attention. In here."
You sure do. That's powerful stuff — and a pretty succinct summary, a kind of Letts-Chekhov Unhappy Meal Combo, of bitterness, its derivation and its consequences. And it's not the only such moment. The notably unpleasant sister-in-law Natasha, played by Alena Arenas in one of the most successful performances, minces no words here. And there is something about the way Letts translates Irina, the youngest of the sisters, played by Caroline Neff, that somehow makes her more self-aware and wise than typically is the case. Especially when it comes to her figuring out that the sisters' collective problem is not the elusiveness of happiness, but their inability to embrace fully anything other than its absence.
But you don't really see these sisters as much of a collective. It's not that they are played by actors of very different ages (Ora Jones, an actress of great stature, plays Olga) or even that their acting styles are different. Such a disparity worked just fine in Austin Pendleton's brilliant recent production of this play at the Classic Stage Company in New York. You just find yourself looking for a connective tissue that never reveals itself; the best moments come when one of the sisters is standing apart or talking with someone on the outside.
One of the challenges Letts set for Shapiro here is that by amping up the most intense moments, he makes it much harder for the play to ebb and flow back and forth from its scenes of ordinary life in all its soul-killing mundanity. In other words, if Mash, Olga and Irina are going to bare their souls as they do here, you think, wouldn't that directness come from something and continue after? Can they really sink back into a malaise and listen to someone strumming a guitar? After that?
That's a tough one, but if you're doing this adaptation and you have Shapiro's chops and affinity for going for the jugular, it is an issue that still has to be solved. Letts' work does not necessarily sit easily with what's thought of as traditionally Chekhovian, yet I think he has no problem getting into Chekhov's head. But it's a crucial distinction; the production remains too much in the thrall of the typically Chekhovian. Thus there is a disconnect.
Perhaps one way through was to surround the sisters with men who could really take them on. The guys here — Scott Jaeck's Chebutykin, John Judd's Vershinin, Usman Ally's Solyony, Yasen Peyankov's Kulygin, Chance Bone's Rode, Derek Gaspar's Baron — are mostly genial fellows with a certain detachment.
That works some of the time. (Ally is especially droll in a production that could use more edgy comedy.) Although fine actors abound, there is a missing collective antagonistic force. Your skin doesn't crawl at the thought of being married (like Masha) to an insipid, pretentious schoolteacher. You don't shudder at settling (like Irina) for the Baron when you wanted love. And you don't see the erotic possibilities and pitfalls of the other men — variously, father figures, lovers and models of personal disaster. You could. These actors could reveal all that if the tension built in a cohesive way. And if it did, you could unlock the mysteries and revelations of these three sisters, trapped in the provinces together.
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20-$75 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org