The Round House Theatre has accomplished a thoroughly credible production of Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" -- a play that is continually tempting to actors yet one whose vision is rarely achievable.
The range of emotions in the play is large, but the realization of them must be subtle, just as Chekhov's themes are enormously ambitious, yet slyly communicated. Director David Cromwell, who is more familiar to us as an actor at the Folger Theatre, has guided a company of local actors to a production rich in relationships between characters, as effective in the comic as it is in the profound.
His one major miscalculation was the choice of an impressionistic rather than a realistic set. While this idea has been tried elsewhere with success, Richard H. Young's design is not so much impressionistic as ugly and flimsy.
The three sisters and their brother, Andrey, live in a town of 100,000 somewhere between St. Petersburg and Moscow. The Prozorovs are most of what there is of the educated elite, and each is stifled by the provincial town. Masha is bored with a youthful marriage to a schoolteacher, Olga and Irina seek work and then are drained by it, and Andrey is losing his desire to be a professor and settling for small-town officialdom.
Irina, the youngest, is idealistic and believes life will be better if they move to Moscow. Masha, langorous and arrogant in her beauty, salves her discontent by falling in love with Vershinin, an officer stationed in the town. Olga becomes a schoolmistress and is considered the "good" one of the family, yet withdrawn into spinsterhood. Andrey marries a woman who quickly alienates everyone with her boorishness.
Time passes and things change: Children are born, Irina decides to marry, the soldiers are reassigned. "Nothing matters," repeats the hopeless old doctor who lives in the house. The sisters lose or subvert their dreams, conscious of their weakness and middle-class security. Vershinin, whose poetic philosophizing has awakened Masha, is no more able to change what he doesn't like about his life than she is.
Cromwell has allowed the comedy in the play to accent the despair. The performers have done particularly well in establishing the relationships between the characters. Loathing for Andrey's obnoxious wife unites the others; the sexual tension between Masha and Vershinin is palpable; Masha's disdain for her husband -- and his hurt -- are clear.
This requires strong ensemble acting, and it is for the most part achieved. Greta Lambert is a bitchy yet vulnerable Masha, Ralph Cosham is an attractive Vershinin who is nonetheless still a provincial soldier. Dion Anderson does well with the doctor's drunk scene, and Michael Littman is chillingly effective as the arrogant Solyony (a rival for Irina's affections). Mary Woods, Gail Sawyer, Thomas E. Schall, David DiGiannantonio and Anne Stone all also give performances that are textured and convincing. And the entr'acte music composed and played by Chris Patton, enlivens a lengthy scene change. He is ably assisted by Chris Shih, who appears to be about 10 and plays the violin.
"Three Sisters," by Anton Chekhov, directed by David Cromwell, set design by Richard H. Young, costumes by Leslie-Marie Cocuzzo, props by Kathleen Wolfrey, lights by John K. Gabbett. With Mary Woods, Gail Sawyer, Grete Lambert, Dion Anderson, Mark Jaster, Michael Littman, Sarah Marshall, Leonard Martinoli, Ralph Cosham, Thomas E. Schall, David DiGiannantonio, Anne Stone, John Gibson, David Brazda, Chris Patton and Chris Shih. At the Round House Theatre through Feb. 7.