Unhappy in its own way

Anton Chekhov, arguably Russia’s greatest playwright, must have been miserable company. He insisted that his grim dramas about hopeless people in tortured circumstances were comedies, and he considered it his mission to rub theatergoers’ faces in their own utterly meaningless workaday lives to encourage them to do better.

Oh, joy.

Gloom and doom notwithstanding, Three Sisters, written not long before the playwright succumbed to TB at the ripe old age of 44, is regarded by numerous critics as the best play of the 20th century. A four-act tour de force, with some productions running past the three-hour mark, Sisters is a challenge to actors and audiences alike, garnering either enthusiastic ovations or snores.

The story tells of four siblings living in the old family mansion in a garrison town some distance from Moscow. Though uniformly longing for a glorious return to the urbanity of their well-heeled Muscovite youth, the three sisters — Irina, Olga and Masha — are very different women, respectively a dreamy innocent, a bossy homemaker and a sybarite given to impetuous kisses and mink coats. Their fortunes have faded, however — and the lives of brother Andrei Prozorov and his sisters meander from distressing to worse in the course of the drama.

Waynesville’s Haywood Arts Regional Theatre has elected to close out its 2005 season with Chekhov’s masterwork, an adventurous foray from a company better known for comedy, light musicals and Shakespeare. Yet, judging from the troupe’s performance in rehearsal, they may be on to something. A seasoned cast under the direction of Lloyd Kay — an award-winning director and veteran actor in his own right — offered glimpses of talent and experience that show every promise of delivering the goods. It is a tribute to Kay that the actors Xpress spoke with mentioned his involvement in the show as a motivating factor for seeking their roles.

“I have had the pleasure of working on this wonderful play three times in my years in the theater,” says Kay, who’s been with HART for the past decade. “The first time I encountered it was when I stage-managed the play for a professional theater in Cincinnati. … Then in New York, I performed the role of Kulygin … [and later] Dr. Chebutykin, in another Off Broadway production.”

Among many talented actors, Jennifer Sanner stands out in her portrayal of the sensuous Masha, married to a schoolmaster (Kulygin) but cozying up to Vershinin (played by long-time HART Managing Director Steve Lloyd), a married officer destined to answer the call of war. Lloyd has Vershinin solidly nailed, as well, lending saucy verisimilitude to the characters’ dalliance.

Sanner’s theatrical appearances are limited to two previous shows at HART — and yet she felt ready to take on Masha.

“She is so complex,” muses Sanner, before getting to the point. Masha, adds the actress, is “a dark, brooding bitch who is immensely unhappy, then falls in love, is completely swept off her feet, and is half crazy. She’s a fascinating woman, well above all the men in her life.

“I’ve been struggling,” Sanner admits, “with the whole crazy part of her. I have a lot of stage time, not all of it speaking, and Masha changes throughout the play, sometimes within one scene.”

As pie-eyed little sister Irina, Trinity Smith plays well, turning her youth to good advantage in a role that has her dreaming of the stars but settling for Baron Tuzenbakh, another doomed soldier. The college-bound Smith, who’s active with the Montford Park Players and plans to make a career of acting, notes, “I wanted to be in Three Sisters because Lloyd was directing, and because the female roles were really good.”

Rick Sibley, who first hit the boards five years ago in Plaeides Productions’ dramatization of The Bet, turns in a spirited portrayal of Tuzenbakh — possibly the play’s only optimistic character. The soldier’s outlook, it should be noted, is rooted in a conviction that things will never get better, and so might as well be enjoyed as is. Sibley — voted “Best Healer” in Xpress‘ 2002 Readers’ Poll — is, off stage, similarly sanguine.

“I like what they do here,” he says. “I like the people. It’s like family.”

A happy family, one presumes — though they’re not letting that stand in their way.

Haywood Arts Regional Theatre (in the Performing Arts Center at the Shelton House, 250 Pigeon St. in downtown Waynesville) concludes its run of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18 and Saturday, Nov. 19, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20. Tickets are $15/adults, $12/seniors, $6/students. (828) 456-6322.

About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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