I do love Chekhov; his particular brand of existential malaise taps directly into an awful sense of disappointment and wasted life that can never be fully quashed, only subdued. It is the fine details of execution, though, that render the endless complaining about life beautifully relatable or an insufferable bore. In his contemporary adaptation, Paolo Santalucia’s production of Three Sisters, presented by The Howland Company and Hart House Theatre, falls somewhere in the middle for me.
Three sisters—Irina (Shauna Thompson), Masha (Caroline Toal) and Olga (Hallie Seline)—struggle to forge satisfying lives after the death of their father. They have inherited a large estate with their brother, Andrei (Ben Yoganathan). As the story unfolds, we examine: unhappy marriages, squandered potential, fraught relationships with some local soldiers and the crushing burden of life’s mundane, forward slog towards death. Ah, Chekhov!
This has the right balance of humour and pathos, with a fluid, naturalistic fluctuation between the two. I didn’t feel much investment, however, in the intense emotionality of the later scenes. The cast is, for the most part, earnest and involved, but their dynamic is lacking the nuances that convey a deep, unspoken awareness between people. I don’t feel their history.
Nancy Anne Perrin’s tiered set is evocative, with high walls and massive floating windows suggesting the majesty of the house. A vast backdrop depicts the sky beyond, growing increasingly dark and ominous with the tale’s devastating trajectory. A Chekhovian set doesn’t have to be detailed and realistic, but it should offer some patina of human inhabitance; this world, for me, never felt quite lived in.
Santalucia’s modernization isn’t quite specific enough either. We know this isn’t turn-of-the-century Russia, but we can’t quite place where or when it is. This deliberate vagueness makes the story feel more abstract than universal, diminishing the tangibility that makes Chekhov properly resonate.
There are a few stand-out moments for me. In this adaptation, Alex (Christine Horne), the visiting solider that steals Masha’s heart, is a woman. The scene where their mutual affection is revealed is genuinely exhilarating. Toal and Horne have endearing chemistry and their final moment together is quite heartbreaking.
Masha’s good-natured, though awkward and obtuse, husband Theo was played at opening night by Dan Mousseau (one of two alternates for the role). I found his schtick pretty hilarious, but he is more vaudevillian goofball than convincing person.
The performance I found the most consistently compelling was Ruth Goodwin’s Natasha, Andrei’s unfaithful wife. Mocked by the sisters in the opening scene, she first appears as a gawky and self-conscious outsider. As the years progress, she becomes an egomaniacal tyrant. Goodwin plays her as an obnoxious valley girl, but we gradually recognize this affectation as a desperate mask for some deep resentment. When pent-up frustration finally bursts, her unvarnished rant really thrilled me.
This is a stylish and admirable effort, with flashes of authenticity, but the verisimilitude is patchy. Some of the most poignant moments feel unearned.