Caught my first Chekhov play last weekend, "Three Sisters," by Classic Stage Company, directed by Austin Pendleton, using a translation by Paul Schmidt. A military family, left stranded in a small town when the patriarch died, longs to return to Moscow, to civilization, culture and society. Their dream is shown up by the course of the play to be futile, as each of the three sisters (and their brother) makes her accommodations with a diminished life.
The eldest sister Ólga Prózorov (Jessica Hecht) accepts a promotion to be headmistress of the local school. The second, Másha (Maggie Gyllenhaal), opens her heart to the married battery commander, Vershínin (a wonderful Peter Sarsgaard) only to be crushed when he has to leave with his troops for a foreign posting; herself married, she has to live on with the pedantic schoolteacher of a husband who she knows can never understand her. The youngest, Irína (radiant Juliet Rylance), whose birthday celebration opens the play, plumps on a homely-looking suitor (Baron Túzenbach, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach) as her ticket out of the town, but he dies in a foolish duel. The brother, Andréy (Josh Hamilton, looking very dashing, despite his made-up paunch), brought up for great accomplishment, as were all his sisters, marries a local shrew Natásha (Marin Ireland) and sinks into gambling debts.
The first two acts moved at a pace both leisurely and revealing. The moment Irína broke down in Act Two was most moving. The second act was almost nightmarish, as everyone collapsed from exhaustion or nerves, after helping to put out the fire in a neighbor's house. The third act, however, dragged. It was a long play, three hours long, and the ending, which should feel inevitable, felt instead unsurprising.