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Stage Door: Three Sisters

02/04/2011 10:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Unhappy families were a Chekov specialty -- and one of his masterworks, Three Sisters, now at the CSC, sums up all the thwarted passion, love and yearning in a single word: Moscow. Olga (Jessica Hecht), Irina (Juliet Rylance) and Masha (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are desperate to return to the city; what paralyzes them is somewhat unclear.

"There must be meaning!" Masha cries and she finds it, briefly, in a doomed love affair with a soldier (Peter Sarsgaard). Both trapped in loveless marriages, they cannot give full rein to their desire. Nor can anyone in this sad, lonely tale of broken dreams, exquisitely rendered by the three principal actresses.

Unlike the CSC's iffy production of Uncle Vanya last season, this year's Chekov is far more sure-footed. First, the set doesn't obscure the actors; second, most of the cast is in sync with the rhythms of the drama. Emotionally intense, Three Sisters is a timeless saga that resonates in every generation.

What's so striking about Chekov's characters is the depth of their feelings -- particularly the three sisters. Olga, an absorbing Hecht, manages to be resolute and vulnerable, while Irina, softly courted by the baron (a well-modulated Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a kind man she doesn't love, ruefully comes to terms with her limited options. The pain in her soul, as in Masha's, is palpable and rendered with genuine longing. All three women admire their brother's intellect, but Andrey (Josh Hamilton) is weak, and his wife Natasha (Marin Ireland) manages to destroy the haven the sisters have built. Ireland, however, gives an anachronistic performance; her tone and mannerisms seem too modern.

Similarly, some of the translations are curious -- "weird" and "what's up" -- in a turn-of-the-century story about emotionally displaced Russians. But these are minor quibbles; overall, director Austin Pendleton has captured the scope and essence of this extraordinary play. That's thanks to a wonderful cast, with outstanding performances by the three sisters, who understand Chekov's emotional rhythms.

The set augments the story, and the space invites us in. Chekov's sensitivity and humanity, his profound understanding of suffering, is given its due in this weighty production.

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