Vodka, misery and beauty: family time with Three Sisters

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Chekhov’s three sisters, (from left) Natalia Payne as Masha, Heather Wood as Irina and Wendy Rich Stetson as Olga contemplate the far-off dream of returning to Moscow in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Three Sisters. Below: moments of merriment relieve some of the Russian gloom. Photos by

Time aches in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s elegiac Three Sisters. The past is where true happiness lived (in Moscow), and the future holds the promise of reviving that happiness (in Moscow). But the present (not in Moscow) is just a painful stretch to be endured and lamented.

That Anton Chekhov was a harvester of human souls, and the crop he tended was ripe with sorrow, loss and, perhaps worst of all, indifference. This is readily apparent in director Les Waters’ production of Three Sisters on the intimate Thrust Stage.

There’s warmth and humor emanating from the stage as we meet the soldiers, staff and sisters in a well-appointed country home, but once we get to know the characters a little bit, it’s one big stream of thwarted desire, boredom, frustration and self-delusion.

It sounds like misery, but between Chekhov and Waters, we’re treated to a beautifully staged, deeply compassionate exploration of mostly unhappy people.

When you walk into the Thrust and drink in Annie Smart’s gorgeous set, it’s the first indication that we’re in good hands. We see two stories of the country home, with the focus on the dining room and an adjacent living room/parlor. Through the windows, we see falling snow and an elegant stand of birch trees (exquisitely lit by Alexander V. Nichols).

It’s a comfortable home – perhaps a little cramped, but that’s as it should be. We hear repeatedly that this small provincial town is claustrophobic with everybody up in everybody else’s business. That’s certainly true here – especially in the dining room when 13 people are sharing a meal.

To see such a large, capable cast on such a relatively small stage makes you feel like you’re part of the action. You’re at that crowded dinner table enjoying shots of vodka. You’re in the nursery on the night of the devastating fire looking to escape from the smoky chaos.

Waters’ production pulls you in from the beginning and doesn’t let you go for an emotionally wrenching three hours.

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In some ways, the play does seem long because the characters are so aware of time’s slow passage and everything time is not providing for them, but there’s such attention to detail in the performances, so much to enjoy and savor, that the running time feels immaterial.

Waters is using a new version of Three Sisters by Sarah Ruhl (based on a literal translation by Elise Thoron with Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati), and as much as I love Ruhl, I had mixed feelings about the sometimes awkward mix of formal and casual language in her script.

But when actors connect to the characters, the actual words tend to matter less. For evidence of this, look no further than Natalia Payne as middle sister Masha and Bruce McKenzie as Vershinin, the married soldier who captures the equally married sister’s heart.

These two spar, flirt and fall in love with such passion – most of which has to be conveyed on the down low – that you can’t help hoping that happiness comes to someone in the play, even at the cost of their respective spouses’ feelings. These two actors crackle, and their bitterness toward their real lives is acute. Here’s a typical Masha observation: “What a miserable goddamn life.”

Oldest sister Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson) is, as one character describes her, “so good, so tortured.” Stetson’s performance is so grounded in reality, so believable that you root for her to escape her misery as the world’s most reluctant headmistress.

And Heather Wood as Irina, the baby, makes a sadly believable transition from idealistic young woman to beaten down office drone whose indefatigable hope turns out to have an expiration date.

The whole cast – resplendent in Ilona Somogyi’s turn-of-the-20th-century costumes – offers performance gems throughout. Some of my favorite moments involved David Abrams as Fedotik bringing Irina a hauntingly melodic top for her birthday and Olga and Irina enjoying bedtime small talk from behind the relative privacy of their respective bed screens.

James Carpenter as crumbling doctor Chebutykin creates a vivid impression of a man slowly receding from life. He is chided for loving the three sisters too much (he was in love with their mother), which cuts him to the quick. And later in the play, he suffers a complete emotional breakdown that is devastating to watch.

There’s a lot of crying in this play – and the most intense tears come from the men.

It’s an affecting play, deeply emotional but more apt to inspire contemplative reverie than depression even though it is awfully sad. There’s a pain in these people, and we recognize it because it hasn’t changed much in 111 years. It’s the endurance of time and the awareness that life, for all its trouble and angst, can end up amounting to not much.


Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Three Sisters continues through May 22 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

7 thoughts on “Vodka, misery and beauty: family time with Three Sisters

  1. This is not a critical review…this is a whitewash advertisement. I saw Three Sisters last week, and it was absolutely terrible! The acting is stilted and forced, direction is directionless, and the script trash. Many people walked out at intermission-I wish I had been one of them. Ruhl’s play is an absolute unequivocal disappointment and a complete waste of 3 hours and $50. The only thing that was “good”, was the set (but alas, it didn’t have any lines). Having just seen, “Ruined” and “Arabian Nights” here (both were fabulous!)-I and my entire party of 4 were surprised how incredibly bad this play was. Three Sisters had all the feel of a lousy high school production, without any of the amateur charm to explain its’ existence on a stage. AVOID THIS PLAY! And shame on you Mr. Jones for perpetrating a fraud with this self indulgent excuse for tired classical theatre.

  2. Hello, Laurence. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. But may I ask you: why in the world would you shame anyone’s opinion? Reactions to art are allowed to be different, and that difference really shouldn’t involve shame. I’m frankly appalled by that.

  3. Wow, I saw this production and while I had reservations about the translation, I was engaged by the performances and thought the direction superb.

  4. Mr. Jones,

    You are quite welcome.

    Um, er, eh….I have expressed my opinion in regards to this “art” as well sir-what is the difference between me shaming you for your write-up, and you being “frankly appalled” by my expressed opinion regarding same?

    Sounds like reflected shame to me…which also sounds just a touch hypocritical of you, ‘neh?

    To put a pencil point on it-what you have on this page here really isn’t an “opinion”…it is a clear promo: replete with professional photographic documentation (cameras aren’t alowed in the theatre), and a leader to purchase tickets (gee, do you get a commission promoting bad theatre, or do you do this just for giggles?). So permit my appalling OPINION again if you will: you sound just a tad disingenuous in this entire endeavor.

    You know, it was one of my party of 4 who had experienced this unfortunate production, that brought this review to my attention. She had a sufficiently negative opinion of this play to take the time to *rolf* on this review into my e-mail.
    A rather talented actor herself, she quipped:

    “Is it just me, or was it disgustingly cliche to cast a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead as sisters?”

    I’ll leave it at that!

  5. Wish to register my agreement with Laurence opinions of so called BP production of The Three Sisters. However, I hardly no where to begin. I have never seen a production so miscast. The three sisters were never ever talking to each in way that conveys having suffered the same isolation from Moscow. They all are in different plays with different acting styles that were never blended by so called director Waters. What in heavens name ever provoked him to cast such tall actresses to work on such a small stage. I was forever reminded of how they towered over the men in the cast. The men never displayed any sense of being emotionally affected by their own failings or yearnings. They simply bleeted their lines and then sat down. How is it possible that I sat ten feet from the tiny so calle thrust stage and couldnt hear clearly the lines being woodenly delivered? How is it possible that so many actors stode by so stiffly making the audience feel like they were impatient to get off the stage? This is a play about yearnings. Yearning to return to a previous lifestyle that has escaped these members of the family. But, these actors all looked like they were doing their first performances in a college production. Where is the empathy needed for the Vershinin character? Gone. Where is the sympathy for the three sisters and each of their longings? Not ever present. Ever. The tiny thrust stage looked cramped from every angle, especially the so called uppper level dining room where we audience members were treated to holding our breath hoping that actors wouldnt all off or trip over each other. The mish mash script of Ruhl and her translators was not so much modernized but made certain words (wiped out, goddamn, et al) stick out like an amateurish attempt contemporize Chekhov. My question is: why does he need contemporizing? His situations are endured by most people every day and are spoken in powerful and poetic language. Finally, a word of praise for the costumes which emobodied the shear worn out passing of an era more than any thing being spoken by the actors. I brought my daughter who was born in SE Asia to introduce her to Chekhov. Alas, she said she nearly fell asleep and couldnt understand why the actors were shouting at each other so much. I tried to tell her they shouldnt be shouting on the same level but actually spilling our their guts to each other. Poor Chekhov would have turned over in his grave to see his language and intention driven into the ditch in this unwieldy production.

  6. Pingback: Feeling the Passion of Sarah Ruhl | Chad Jones' Theater Dogs

  7. I saw Three Sisters yesterday, and since I shun all reviews before I attend a production, I only came upon the contrasting comments now — after its run. When I do canvass reviews after the fact, i find I tend to align in most instances fairly well with Mr. Jones. I fall in more with Messrs. Laurence and Gilotte at the moment, however. I was impressed by the play, not the production. The high points were costumes and set for me.

    I saw Mark Jackson’s dance piece Yes, Yes, to Moscow! a few years back (in SF, not Berlin) which is based on the Three Sisters. It was dynamic and moving; a cascade of emotions by the four actors/dancers. The sisters’ yearning was palpable. I searched for a spark of that in this production, but came up empty-handed.

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