Three Sisters

Tracy Letts’ new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic drama at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble receives a handsomely designed and heartfelt production.

Carrie Coon, Caroline Neff,and Ora Jones
in Three Sisters
(© Steppenwolf Theatre)
Carrie Coon, Caroline Neff,
and Ora Jones
in Three Sisters
(© Steppenwolf Theatre)

Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County, has brought his plain-spoken American style to his new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s seminal 1901 Russian drama, Three Sisters, now at the Steppenwolf Theatre. And while he has made the work more accessible, this lavish new production, under the heartfelt direction of Anna D. Shapiro, isn’t fully successful.

Working from several literal translations, Letts has eliminated arcane Slavic details. Thus, Irina’s “name day” becomes, simply, her “birthday,” and multi-syllabic patronymic names (say, Natasha Alexandrovna or Nicolai Mikhailovich) are reduced to a single first or last name. Even his occasional use of contemporary slang is acceptable because it remains true to character and mood, as when the bitter and enervated Masha declares, “More wine, please! Life sucks so let’s live it up!”

And true-to-character is what Chekhov requires. He is, after all, the principal architect of realistic drama based on subtext: the thoughts, feelings, motives and fears of characters which are not expressed in words. If the actors nail the subtext, you’ll understand why sisters Olga (Ora Jones), Masha (Carrie Coon), and Irina (Caroline Neff) talk for years about returning to Moscow but never do, even though there is no outside force holding them back.

But nailing subtext is not easy. What we do not feel in the first three acts is the visceral longing, desire or disappointment that motivates or restrains the characters. We hear it all discussed, so that the fourth and final act manages to have tension and critical mass, but earlier emotional gut punches go missing.

For example, there never is physical proximity or body language between sullen Captain Solyony (Usman Ally) and pretty youngest sister Irina to indicate his desire for her. His jealous declaration of love should come as a surprise to Irina, but not to the audience.

Also, Shapiro hesitates to let her fine company play silences and pregnant pauses, which are important in Chekhov’s plays. Some of the character’s deeper feelings may come over the course of the run, however, as the actors settle into their roles.

Until then, there’s much to satisfy a theatergoer, including the brilliantly authentic period costumes and furnishings by costume designer Jess Goldstein, set designer Todd Rosenthal, and props assistants Emily Guthrie and Maria DeFabo, all lit by Donald Holder.

Moreover, there’s more than enough on stage for us to understand, in the words of John Lennon, that “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”