Stage review: PICT's 'Three Sisters' dazzles with sparkling performances

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"Three Sisters" is one of those enduring plays that many of us have seen several times, but I would wager that each version has brought us fresh revelations about the characters' lives -- and our own. That's the genius of Anton Chekhov, whose sympathy for humanity led him to glean layers of meaning beneath the surface of those lives.

Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre is celebrating the Russian playwright with a series of dramas by and inspired by him. It opened the celebration last weekend with such a finely acted version of "Three Sisters" that the bar has been set quite high for the rest of the celebration.

'Three Sisters'

Where: Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland.

When: Through Aug. 26. Wednesday-Saturday and Aug. 8, 16 and 23, 8 p.m.; Thursday and Aug. 12, 19 and 26, 2 p.m.; Aug. 19, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $24-$48. 412-561-6000.

Whether it was the 1997 translation by Paul Schmidt or the sensitive interpretation by director Harriet Power, PICT's version allows the youngest sister, Irina, to rise above the unhappiness and resignation of her siblings and imbue life's struggles with believable hope.

In other productions I've seen, either Olga, the oldest and most worn-down sister, or Masha, with her desperate romance, were the centers, but finally Irina gets her due.

Vera Varlamov, making her professional debut, is a transcendent Irina, a naive, giddy 20-year-old in the first act who emerges four years later in the last act wiser and tougher than her sisters. She will get to Moscow and they will die talking about Moscow.

Ms. Varlamov ages, almost physically, in the course of the play, growing in stature as her character realizes that her fate is in her hands. In the closing moments after the stupid tragedy that threatens to kill her ambition, Ms. Varlamov's character stands alone, a brave figure in her sensible hat, and plans her escape.

"I'll go away tomorrow, by myself," she announces. "I'll teach school and devote my whole life to people who need it ... who may need it."

The other Prozorov sisters prefer to stay in their provincial town, praying for a better life as the play ends. The closing scene is one of the most poignant moments in 20th-century drama as Olga gathers her sisters around her and tells them they just have to hang on until "we'll know why we live, why we suffer."

Nike Doukas is a brittle, slightly shrill Olga, the teacher whose unaccustomed happiness soon disappears as her stress headaches resume. Ms. Doukas' portrayal slowly reveals Olga's stubborn state of denial that she defends with such sad fierceness.

As Masha, the only married sister, Allison McLemore is heartbreaking in her hopeless love for the foolish romantic army officer Vershinin. Ms. McLemore's unhappy wife is a defiant transgressor with flashing eyes and a determined smile masking the quiet desperation that prompts her risky affair.

There's a fourth "sister" of sorts in the Prozorov house, the conniving Natasha, who has married the weak brother, Andrei. Megan McDermott's version of the two-faced controlling woman lacks subtlety but not a nasty obnoxious quality. The genteel sisters are no match for her force.

The tight confines of the Heymann Theatre space work to this production's advantage by bringing the audience close to the actors as though we were eavesdropping on the unfortunate lives of the sisters and their tiny community. Gianni Downs' set is flexible as it moves from the Prozorovs' pleasant dining room to their expansive garden.

Chekhov's counterbalance to the four women is a six-pack of inadequate males:

The spineless, wastrel brother (Christopher Conn), Masha's boring but decent husband, Kulygin (Joseph Domencic), Irina's hapless suitor, Baron Tuzenbach (Leo Marks), his rival the psychopathic Solyony (Jonathan Visser), Vershinin (David Whalen) and the old fool doctor, Chebutykin (Larry John Meyers).

They're a pathetic crew, immature in their romantic fantasies, full of idealistic talk of the future, insensitive to the sisters' souls and careless in their behavior.

Each actor brings a quirky distinction to the role, particularly Mr. Whalen, perfectly cast as the handsome commander seeking escape with Masha, and Mr. Meyers, who captures both the comic and tragic sides of the failed physician.

Mr. Marks takes a peculiar approach to Tuzenbach, playing him with a diffidence that masks his nervous earnestness. It works, however, drawing strong sympathy for his tragic role.

Add the sensitive costume design of Pei-Chi-Su and incidental music to the strong acting of PICT's ensemble and the result is an engaging, insightful journey to Czarist Russia in the years before the Revolution. Sorry, I forgot to include Chekhov, whose gentle genius is allowed to flourish.

This "Three Sisters" celebrates that genius.


Bob Hoover:


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