How many times have you watched Midsummer in a summer park? With all due respect to the Bard, do you ever yearn to enjoy your picnic with some other master of language and the human condition? This summer, Fenix Theatre Company takes a blessed break from Shakespeare to bring Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece Three Sisters to the Deering Oaks band shell.
Now, if Chekhov intimidates you, or if his name conjures only grey Russian misery, rest assured that this excellent Fenix show, directed by Tess Van Horn, is your antidote: It’s wise, wrenching, and funny. It’s gorgeously staged and exquisitely acted. Its language (in Štĕpán Šimek’s lively, modernism-peppered translation) makes a snappy poetry of the colloquial. And in its characters’ myriad desires and heartbreaks, you just might recognize some part of everyone you know.
The title sisters come from a well-off, intellectual Moscow family, but they live in the provinces, where they long for a more sophisticated life. Olga (Reba Short), the maternal eldest, teaches and never married. Masha (Casey Turner), middle sister and bitter, married at 18 to an older schoolteacher (a doddering Kevin O’Leary) she once thought brilliant, and now despises their small town. “Knowing three languages in this shithole,” she laughs sourly, is like “having a sixth finger.” And the youngest, Irina (Hannah Daly), wants passionately to work. “If I could be an ox,” she yearns, “instead of a young lady who sleeps till noon!”
Over four acts, we follow the dreams, fortunes, and loves of the family: their adored little brother Andrei (Peter Brown) loves a peasant, Natasha (Heather Irish), of whom his sisters disapprove. Lieutenant Tuzenbach (Joe Bearor) loves Irina, who only likes him back. And jaded Masha is bewitched into an affair with the idealistic Colonel Vershinin (Rob Cameron). Most everyone desires something beyond what they have — or else has given up on desire.
The extraordinary Short, Turner, and Daly are deliciously convincing as sisters, with their reversions to childish yelling or giggling, their adult resentments, the deep mutual knowledge behind both exasperation and tenderness. They acutely triangulate and push against the sisters’ roles — Short’s generous, peace-keeping Olga; Daley’s wide, watchful Irina; Turner’s sharply poised Masha, flashing brilliantly between fury and euphoria.
As the man who stirs Masha from her misery, Cameron gives Vershinina touch of antic comedy, stuttering on his own intelligence and enthusiasms. He and Turner craft a lovely meet-cute sequence as Vershinin goofily, endearingly philosophizes to the household, his and Masha’s appraising gazes meet, and her taut irritation melts away.
Visually, the show is elegant and rich in nuance. Costume design (by Heidi Kendrick) is pitch-perfect: the navy and wine in the officers’ uniforms, the whipped sherbet dresses that mark Natasha as other, the sisters’ own telling constellation of grey, black, and white. Actors range the full depth and levels of the band shell, forming thoughtful, ever-shifting tableaux in arresting depth of field. Between acts (performed without an intermission, but the two hours fly) come interludes of simple uke and mandolin (by Megan Tripaldi and Ray D Murdoch Curry) and character movement — pacing, greeting, undressing, glaring, reaching. Every gaze, twitch, and touch enriches our sense of their complicated, flawed, yearning selves.
The exceptional ensemble calibrates carefully between comedy and drama, revealing empathy even in small moments. In a blink of a scene, the socially dysfunctional soldier Solyeny (Sean Ramey) hints at deep trauma when we learn why he’s always rubbing and smelling his hands. The cynical, self-loathing doctor (Paul Haley) delivers a comedic but devastating monologue about why he’s drinking again; his nihilism nonetheless allows him a warm, funny rapport with Irina. And “I’m content,” O’Leary’s cuckolded schoolteacher says three times — once to his wife; once, defensively, to Irina; and once into the void, on his way into the night.
Chekhov lets us know and care for all of these souls, makes all humanity feel like our own confounding, exasperating, hilarious, heartbreakingly beloved family. And he lets us laugh. So don’t pine for Midsummer. Go to the park, spread your blanket close, and crack open something strong.
Three Sisters | By Anton Chekhov; Directed by Tess Van Horn; Produced by Fenix Theatre Company | Through August 5 | Deering Oaks Park, Portland | Free | www.fenixtheatre.com