theater review

Constellation Theatre's 'Three Sisters' tells of dreams deferred

SISTER ACT: Catherine Deadman, from left, Amy Quiggins and Nanna Ingvarsson in Anton Chekhov's
SISTER ACT: Catherine Deadman, from left, Amy Quiggins and Nanna Ingvarsson in Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters." (Daniel Schwartz)
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By Celia Wren
Thursday, January 28, 2010

First, I'd like to apologize to Olga, Masha and Irina Prozorov for impeding their relocation to Moscow. You see, Constellation Theatre Company's admirable version of the 1901 classic "Three Sisters" (as translated by Lanford Wilson) uses in-the-round staging, an arrangement that suits Anton Chekhov's wistful tale of siblings spinning their wheels in the Russian boondocks. The inertia that foils the Prozorov girls' dream of hitting the urban big time is, in part, the gravitational force of their oddball small-town neighbors. Those neighbors also include the audience in the Source Theatre, where the seating hems in the actors.

The configuration is just one of the effective details in director Allison Arkell Stockman's production, which exhibits a discipline, solidity and visual polish that this ambitious company's offerings haven't always displayed. True, a stagy quality creeps into the cast's delivery and movement now and then: My, these provincials arrange themselves elegantly around their furniture, with due concern for sightlines, you might find yourself thinking. Still, Stockman orchestrates the story's fluctuating moods and chromatic character interactions with enough skill that, until the final act (which drags just a tad), you barely notice the show's three-hour running time.

Instead, the durations you pick up on are the narrative's: the years that lapse between acts, leaving the Prozorov home awash in resignation, lowered expectations and bollixed love. Rendering the chronology achingly perceptible are Stockman's capable performers, who give their characters soul and colorful definition. Of the eponymous heroines, Nanna Ingvarsson is particularly heart-wrenching as the schoolteacher Olga, whose face grows ever more wan and careworn. Amy Quiggins emphasizes how the years scour away at the childishness and crinkly-eyed smiles of Irina, the youngest sister. Catherine Deadman's speeches don't always sound natural, but she does bring an apt air of mystery to Masha, unhappily married to the complacent teacher Kulygin (Ashley Ivey, whose grip on the character's endearing and quirky aspects boosts the story's bittersweet flavor). As for the girls' brother, Andrei, Joe Brack poignantly ages (and grows visibly stouter) in the role.

Several of the actors do a particularly deft job navigating the ebb and flow of comedy and melancholy. Shambling around as the self-destructive doctor Chebutykin, the excellent Brian Hemmingsen conveys roguishness punctured by despair. Rubbing his hands neurotically with cologne, Mark Krawczyk's Solyony, an army captain, is simultaneously abrasive, unhinged and vulnerable. Michael John Casey hints at the sadness beneath the odd mystical musings of Lt. Col. Vershinin, and Billy Finn nails his portrait of Baron Tuzenbach, a lieutenant who is as likely to philosophize as he is to turn peevish over the emptiness of a candy container.

Stockman (Constellation's artistic director) waltzes her performers smoothly around designer A.J. Guban's handsome set, whose smartly positioned pieces of furniture allow for emotionally resonant character groupings and -- with the help of Ivania Stack's classy period costumes -- painterly tableaus. In one particularly affecting second-act sequence, an evening of fretting, puttering and desultory conversation at the Prozorovs' pauses for a musical interlude: Near the dining table, the army officers strike up a tune on guitar, mandolin and cello. Someone dances. Existence is suddenly luminous. And then Andrei's insensitive wife, Natasha (Katy Carkuff), sweeps through, peeved at the noise. The party breaks up. Disappointment silts back through the home.

So goes life in Chekhov's world -- and, Stockman's intelligent production reminds us, in our own. Some day, the Prozorovs might get to Moscow, but by then, the traffic will be terrible and the prices highway robbery.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Three Sisters

by Anton Chekhov, translated by Lanford Wilson. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; composer, Jesse Terrill; lighting design, A.J. Guban; sound design, David Crandall; properties design, Samina Vieth; technical direction, Brendon Vierra. With Annie Houston, Lewis Freeman, Carl Brandt Long and Scott Zeigler. Three hours. Through Feb. 21 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. For information, call 202-204-7741 or visit For tickets, go to the Web site or call 800-494-8497.

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