In Bartlett's masterful portrayal, Natasha evolves from an insecure town girl into a grande dame, from a fluttery little pigeon into a plump brood hen.
The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters

Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays at Annenberg Center, Harold Prince Theatre, 3680 Walnut St., through Jan. 28, 898-6791.

When the Festival Theatre for New Plays produced The Three Sisters five years ago (well, when they presented David Mamet's Atlantic Theatre Company in their production of Mamet's translation), the play was played so swiftly that members of the Festival Theatre staff nicknamed it "Two Sisters."

That visiting production inspired then-Festival Theatre Artistic Director Carol Rocamora to embark on her own cycle of translations of Chekhov's four major plays under her own direction. The cycle comes to a close with the current Three Sisters.

This Three Sisters, clocking in at over three hours, is anything but swift, which is as it should be. For The Three Sisters is the Chekhov play with the broadest view of life passing (and passing you by). Large intervals of time pass between each of the four acts (several years, in two instances). We see people brimming with hopes in Act I who have reached the end of their tether or have sunk into resignation by Acts III or IV. Brand new marriages sour. Existing marriages veer into adultery in the desperate attempt to snatch at happiness. Young people resign themselves to marrying without love. And, needless to say, none of the three Prozorov sisters nor their brother Andrei ever escape the provincial garrison town and get to Moscow, the lodestar of their aspirations and locus of their desperations.

Rocamora's production begins, appropriately, with characters upbeat and exuberant. Perched on David P. Gordon's precariously raked living room set (it takes some getting used to) amidst silvery birch trees, the backdrop lit (by Jerold R. Forsyth) a bright emerald green, the youngest sister Irina (Megan Bellwoar) glows with resolution. The eldest (only 28!), Olga (Susan Wilder), is aware of growing thin with disappointment, but is still hopeful and energetic. Even Kulygin (Ezra Barnes), the schoolmaster-husband of the sardonic middle sister Masha (Janis Dardaris), is bursting with enthusiasm. The three sisters, teasing their brother Andrei (Eric Hissom), wrestle him to the ground like a litter of puppies. And when Andrei proposes to the local petit-bourgeoise Natasha (Lisbeth Bartlett), they drop to their knees and smother each other in kisses and animal gropes.

By Act III, while the town is burning down outside the attic window (the backdrop now lit ruby red), things fall apart. Irina, who by Act II had observed that "Life has choked us like weeds," is now so strangled with sobs of frustration that Bellwoar can barely sputter out her words. Wilder's hopeful face has grown empty, an untrustworthy mask. The old regimental doctor (Louis Lippa), after a spell of drunken morbidity, throws in the towel and sinks into existential apathy. Even Natasha, who, in Bartlett's masterful portrayal, evolves from an insecure town girl into a pretentious arriviste and then into a grande dame -- from a fluttery little pigeon into a plump brood hen -- is seen to be so aggressively determined to control everyone and everything only because she is so desperately afraid that she is not in control at all.

Masha, the focus of much of our attention, seems to travel a shorter distance, perhaps because Dardaris has taken as her keynote Masha's statement, late in the play, "deep inside me a rage is burning." This Masha is beginning to end, smoldering with anger, which surfaces in petty outbursts early on and in grand displays of malice later. In the final moments, after she has lost her lover forever, even her tableau of solidarity with her equally unhappy sisters is marked by rage, and her resolution "we must live" is spat out venomously.

Some of the men fare less well in Rocamora's production. Hissom's despair as Andrei peaks surprisingly late; and neither Barnes as Kulygin nor Michael Butler as Vershinin, the battery commander who becomes Masha's lover, holds the stage.

Peter DeLaurier, though, is completely convincing as Solyony, the brooding self-dramatizing loner. But the play and the production belong to Greg Wood, who plays Baron Tusenbach, the unprepossessing and well-meaning aristocrat determined to work, to find meaning in life, and to win the love of Irina. Wood magically strips himself of his good looks, and bravely drains away all of his usual irresistible charm. (One could imagine a less brave director casting him as the sexy and mature Vershinin instead.) Then, having convincingly created the nebbish, Wood fills him with a puppy-dog openness, with a dogged optimism, and with a pathetically deep and abiding upwelling of love.

As Baron Tusenbach and Vershinin sit and philosophize on a wintry evening in Act II (the backdrop now glowing cobalt blue), Wood glows with genuine hope, his vision of the future filled with his own pathetic hopes for love and for meaning. As the debate winds down, the Baron drifts over to the window downstage, pauses, and says, "Look, it's snowing outside," and a nanosecond of hesitation, or doubt, passes fleetingly across Wood's face.

That small moment contains all of The Three Sisters, perhaps all of Chekhov, in it. The Festival Theatre's Three Sisters is too unevenly cast, at times still insufficiently fine-tuned in its rhythms and orchestrations, to be completely effective. But in such moments, and in the final series of tragedies and disappointments that end the play, Rocamora's many years of investment of her own and Festival Theatre's time and energies pay off.

-- Cary M. Mazer