Dallas — Taking the stairs down to Undermain Theatre’s basement space is always a descent into adventure. Three Sisters, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s hilarious and touching story of the three hysterically romantic Prozorov sisters, longing for Moscow’s big city allure but stuck in a provincial military post after their father’s untimely death, is not a disappointment.
Walking to your seats, you’re surrounded by a grove of birch trees, their pale, dark-splotched limbs illuminated with light strings. The four thick concrete columns supporting the building in Deep Ellum where Undermain lives, were initially perceived as a staging problem. Then 21 productions ago, Dallas’s own Tony Award-winning designer John Arnone saw the endearingly fat underpinnings as an asset to be enveloped in his set designs, for everything from the stark scenes of Beckett’s absurdist plays to the richly detailed lyrical expressionism of Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata. On opening night, a longtime patron sitting next me said, “If Undermain ever moves somewhere else, they’ll have to take the columns with them.”
Here, director Katherine Owens, the company’s celebrated artistic director, brings us into the Russian gentry’s home by circling the playing space with three raked rows of seats, creating a truly intimate theater-in-the-round, where we’re all leaning into the gossip and flirting and domestic fights of a family stuck in one place, but breathing with the passion and humor and tenderness of life in flux. Arnone wraps the green columns in ivy and hangs a dozen bright pearl and crystal chandeliers muted by a fog of net over scrubbed-white board floors with parlor tables dressed in lace-trimmed tablecloths. At intermission, you walk through this carefully structured fantasy, briefly vacated by a sterling 15-member cast outfitted in Giva Taylor’s perfectly fitted regiment uniforms and frilly dresses.
Owens and choreographer Danielle Georgiou subtly move the garrisoned regiment’s green-clad officers and the desperately bored sisters in an exquisite waltz around dining tables and velvet upholstered fainting sofas, while we look on. The men declaim on new ideas of historical progress and the glories of the laborer. Nobody but the broken old servants and the exhausted oldest sister, Olga (handsome Joanna Schellenberg, tightening her jaw as a shriven schoolmarm) actually works. It’s pretty funny when the idle Baron Tuzenbach (an endearingly forthright David Meglino) raves about the glories of human sweat, and tries to woo the young Irina (a ripe, eager Jenny Ledel) by projecting their life together as communal workers. Irina is drawn to the crazy, sexy strawberry blonde soldier named Solyony (a delightfully bonkers Dean Wray), who throws himself at her feet, proclaiming her his “bliss.” Who would you choose?
At the center of this swirl of emotion is the middle sister Masha (a perfectly cast and radiant Shannon Kearns), a high strung and intelligent beauty, nevertheless taken in by the charms and tightly tailored uniform of the manly regiment commander Vershinin (a Byronically handsome Bruce DuBose), a married man with a suicidal wife who tells her, “Our heads are in the clouds, and out feet are in the mud.” Ruhl’s version of Masha is terrific, and Kearns gives her profanity-shouting character flesh and passion. Kearns’ Masha embodies the bored and romantic heroine in high style, throwing her fringed wrap around her shoulders, as she sneers at a dinner gathering. “Life is boring!" she shouts. Then she runs smack into Vershinin’s brass-buttoned breast. Uh-huh.
While Masha leaps into passionate infidelity, her prim school teacher husband (tall, angular Brandon J. Murphy) takes it all in with a big dollop of deliberate ignorance and comic babbling about their future good and marching forward as a couple, and so on.
Everybody is so good, so in the moment.
Justin Duncan is the sisters’ pitifully hapless younger brother, Andrei, a man addicted to gambling and strong peasant women like Natasha (a blonde, pushy Ashlee Elizabeth Bashore) who he marries in passion and repents in drink. T. A. Taylor brings a dignity and nostalgia for stable older values to Chebutykin, the doctor (like Chekhov, himself) who has known the young women from childhood, and gets drunk at their table and blesses them when they all stumble forward into a future they resist, but must accept.
As the aging servants in a Russian family losing its status in a changing world, Chris Messersmith and Laura Yancey are both touching and comic. Their poignant interface with the sisters goes far in delineating their personalities and situation. Travis Wiley McGuire and Benjamin Bratcher are merry local villagers who also play a mean accordion and guitar in the Russian dance scenes.
We feel the plight of the sisters as the garrison departs, and they realize that their lives must somehow go on. We leave the thrill of the theater and return to our own daily rounds. But now we have the laughing smile of Chekhov with us as we climb the stairs back to ground level.