KPBS AIRDATE: May 24, 1991
Round about Friday every week, we all know how exactly how daily routine can shrink the spirit and drain the will. But this is a major premise in the work of Chekhov, and it’s a particularly powerful statement in “”Three Sisters.”
You kind of have to know Chekhov to love him. He’s not easy to love, either. You need a good translation, and a better interpretation. His are complex, multi-layered plays, with a distinct air of aimlessness that matches the characters’ lives. Each person onstage longs for happiness and desperately wishes to live a useful life. No one seems to achieve either; they are thwarted by circumstances and short-circuited by their own personalities.
Although Chekhov thought of his works as comedies, his primary early interpreter, Moscow Art Theatre director Stanislavsky, insisted that the plays were sentimental dramas.
In this La Jolla Playhouse production, director Des McAnuff has tried to wring all the comedy from the lines and between. He even cast “Saturday Night Live’s” Jon Lovitz as the boringly professorial Kulygin, whom Lovitz plays with an odd combination of stiffness and SNL shtick. Like the whole piece, it only works sometimes.
The look is luscious, though, as always at the Playhouse. John Arnone’s suggestive, cream-and-green set shows the grandeur that the sisters once knew. But now they are in esthetic exile in a small, barren garrison town, miles away from the much-missed Moscow, which they incessantly discuss, but cannot seem to approach. It is the metaphor of the evening in this vibrant translation by playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie.
The lush lighting, costumes and sound carefully evoke all the feeling of turn-of-the-century Russia. All that’s missing is the passion. Oh, there are plenty of tears. There’s ranting and raving. Palpable exhaustion. Endless comings and goings. Affairs start and finish. But nobody seems to connect.
There is no apparent emotional bond among these sisters, and that’s crucial. There’s less tie to their brother, whom they supposedly adore until his shrewish wife moves into the picture, then into their house, gradually and effectively chipping away at their lives.
There is no passion between brother Andrei and his ill-bred, selfish country wife. No sparks between middle sister Masha and her lover, the brigade-commander Vershinin. No believable ardor from the two military suitors of youngest sister Irina.
There’s a lot of posing and emoting. But it all seems so much more caricature than character.
One thing that the director had in mind was a true ensemble piece, and that he has achieved. All the actors do solid, creditable jobs. No one stands out — except perhaps Nancy Travis as Masha, the cynical middle sister, a role first played by Chekhov’s wife, Olga Knipper.
Travis was terrific last year in the Playhouse production of “”My Children! My Africa!” and that role couldn’t have been more different. She’s definitely an actress to watch, both onstage and in the movies.
Meanwhile, back at the Playhouse, McAnuff and his team are almost running out of Chekhov, who only left behind four major plays. Last year, they opened their season with “The Cherry Orchard.” And in 1985 they did “The Seagull.” So “Uncle Vanya,” who visited the Globe last year, is due for a return trip to San Diego. I hope he arrives with less setting and more soul.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.