What did Chekhov know?

Hedgerow The­atre Com­pa­ny presents Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters’

In
4 minute read
A family party without a secret? Sophia Barret and Marcus Barainyak in Hedgerow’s ‘Three Sisters.’ (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)
A family party without a secret? Sophia Barret and Marcus Barainyak in Hedgerow’s ‘Three Sisters.’ (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

Onstage at Hedgerow Theatre, the eponymous three sisters, along with their brother Andréi (Adam Altman), are stranded in the Russian countryside after the death of their father and cope over four acts and four years with an almost shockingly millennial set of problems.

They're overeducated and underemployed, crushed by debt, and in bad relationships with the wrong people; their jobs suck; and for all the talk of a brighter future on the horizon, nothing seems to be getting much better.

No terrible secrets?

Chekhov's great innovation in the theater was his notion that the boring parts of life could also be interesting, and under Harriet Power's meticulous direction, a set of excellent performances unlocks the real depth behind the seemingly mundane details of lives that don't normally make it onto the stage — a boisterous birthday dinner during which no terrible family secrets are revealed; a pointless argument over a misheard pun; late-night drunken philosophizing that, if it goes anywhere, doesn't go very far. Sarah Ruhl's translation, which dispenses with many of the archaisms that haunt earlier versions, reveals a serio-comic masterpiece, a languid, bittersweet foray into lives held in a kind of perpetual suspension.

Jennifer Summerfield's bruised, sensitive Ólga; Jessica DalCanton's bored, cynical Másha; and Sophia Barrett's eternally disappointed Irína capture a genuinely sisterly dynamic, and the supporting cast provides an array of sharply drawn, whip-smart performances.

Comedy, satire, doom

Chekhov famously considered most of his plays comedies, or at least comic, where everyone else saw tragedy. Between his piercing eye for character and the spate of sharp, sly performances, you could be forgiven for imagining that Three Sisters is a satire, an incisive look into how absurd it is for a family of bourgeois layabouts to think their lives the stuff of great tragedies. But there is a specter haunting the play: James F. Pyne's set, taking full advantage of Hedgerow's old bones as a 180-year-old mill, shows the house of the Prózorovs as decaying and dilapidated, the family colonizing a ruin.

Of all the characters, it's Jared Reed's Colonel Vershínin who seems most out of place. His quavering, soft-spoken sincerity seems brought in from another interpretation of the play, one that is quite serious, and raises a question about Chekhov’s omnipresent sense of doom.

Siblings gather: Jessica DalCanton, Adam Altman, Sophia Barrett, and Jennifer Summerfield. (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)
Siblings gather: Jessica DalCanton, Adam Altman, Sophia Barrett, and Jennifer Summerfield. (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

It's impossible for us, having lived through the bloody birth of a century that Chekhov had never seen and could scarcely imagine, to forget what's coming for the Prózorovs in 1900. Vershínin and fellow officer Baron Túzenbach (Owen Corey) wax poetic about what the future might hold, whether it's Vershínin's misty-eyed vision of human progress or Túzenbach's hard-headed proto-Bolshevism that sees everything mostly the same, except for a "hurricane" that will sweep idleness away and leave everyone to spend their lives doing meaningful work.

What never occurs to them, or to Ray Saraceni's nihilistic doctor Chebutýkin, is the possibility that things could actually get much worse. Characters wonder if they'll recognize each other in 10 or 15 or 20 years, but what's on the horizon 20 years from 1900? A Great War that will kill more than a million Russians and a revolution that will utterly reshape society. A second war and millions more deaths. Famines. Purges. Pogroms.

The anticipation of the past

Chekhov couldn't have known any of this, but did he have an intimation of it? Did he realize that the brutal, bloody empire atop which the Tsar sat, which his lovingly rendered soldiers were building corpse by corpse by corpse, must necessarily lead to global catastrophe? Is Chekhov in on the joke, letting us lament the gentle decline of minor provincial aristocrats like it’s something from Euripides, knowing that a real doom — something far more terrible — was on its way? Or was he blind to it, the same way the postwar America that idolized him was blind to the bloody-handed violence that had built its security?

My feeling is that it's the second one, which is why I'm always ambivalent about Chekhov. This is a good production of a classic play, but it doesn't satisfy in the way that the classics often do, by reminding us of the great contiguity between past and present. Instead, what Chekhov and his characters' conspicuous blindness leads us inevitably toward is a future, both unknowable in its specific character and quite knowable in its potential for blood and cruelty. There's no catharsis here or even a final gag that renders the whole thing absurd, just a kind of sickening anticipation, a sense of dread that can never quite be banished.

What, When, Where

Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Sarah Ruhl. Harriet Power directed. February 6 through March 3, 2019, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, PA. (610) 565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org.

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