Moving masterpiece | September 14, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 14, 2007

Moving masterpiece

Talented cast brings authenticity to Chekhov's 'Three Sisters'

by Kevin Kirby

There is a maxim in theater stating that a director who casts her show correctly has accomplished 80 percent of her task before the first rehearsal begins. The Pear Avenue Theatre's current production of Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" would appear to bear this out.

Watching the ease and authenticity with which the show's five women and seven men inhabit their roles, one suspects that director Jeanie Forte (a theater reviewer for the Weekly) had a relatively easy sail in the rehearsal process.

Whether this is true or not -- whether the finished product is the result of canny casting choices or weeks of grueling work (or both) -- Forte deserves credit for putting together an accessible and quite moving production of this dramatic masterpiece.

Chekhov's play tells the story of the Prozorov sisters (Olga, Masha, and Irina), their brother, Andrey, and the small circle of suitors, in-laws, servants, and friends who frequent the family's home in a dreary, provincial, Russian city at the turn of the 20th century. The mood is typically Chekhovian: alternately humorous and philosophical, with a deep underlying melancholy.

The Prozorovs are educated and cultured, part of Russia's dwindling aristocracy. Each of the siblings wishes, for his or her own reasons, to return to the urban center of Moscow, where they lived as children. However, as the play unfolds over a period of five years, their dreams are repeatedly dashed by random fate and by the consequences of their own decisions.

Each of the siblings (and each of the actors portraying them) reacts to these setbacks in a different way: Olga (Meredith Hagedorn) with an almost cheerful stoicism, Masha (Elizabeth Coy) with festering melancholy, Irina (Sarah Cook) with a quiet resignation that leads her to accept a marriage proposal from a man she does not love, and Andrey (Thom Gorrebeeck) with self-delusion that ultimately breaks down in an outburst of despair. Coy is the standout in the group, though all four give finely textured performances.

The standout performance among the other cast members comes from Andrew Harkins as Vershinin, a military man trapped in an emotionally draining marriage who strikes up something more than a friendship with the brooding Masha. Harkins is an experienced Shakespearean actor, and that experience shows in everything he does, from his fluid handling of Vershinin's philosophical musings to the perfectly controlled emotion of his final farewell.

Other cast members are nearly as strong: Pear regular Shannon Stowe as Andrey's manipulative wife, Natalya; John Hutchinson as an aging physician who still carries a torch for the Prozorovs' long-dead mother; Rob Dario as Irina's suitor, Baron Tusenbakh; and John Baldwin as Masha's much older husband, a schoolteacher whose unrelenting amiability and contentment she finds merely tedious.

Even in the minor roles of Anfisa, the family's elderly servant, and Ferapont, a half-deaf bureaucratic lackey, Lynda Marcum and Jim Johnson are wonderful to watch. Johnson's comic instinct balances on a knife edge; he milks every chuckle he can from Ferapont's plodding demeanor without ever violating the naturalistic style of the play.

The Pear's production is not without flaws. The small stage often seems crowded, due in part to the size of the cast -- the company generally avoids scripts that put 12 bodies on stage at the same time -- but also to sub-optimal use of the space. Further, the metronomic pacing and amorphous staging of the early scenes leave the play feeling unfocused until after intermission, when the actors are able to ratchet up the emotional intensity.

Several technical details also serve to detract (though only briefly) from the overall illusion. A picture frame supposedly hand-crafted by Andrey looks suspiciously mass-produced and modern. Sound effects, whether distant crowd noises or the howl of wind in the fireplace flue, come and go far too abruptly to be believable. And when Olga hands Andrey a key he has asked for, the weird secretiveness of Hagedorn's gesture simply draws attention to the fact that she has no real key to give him because her costume has no pocket in which to keep it.

Luckily, the play is not about frames, keys or sound effects. It is about intelligent people facing disappointment, loss, and the longing for what they cannot have. This is the level on which the Pear's production succeeds. Chekhov's deep sympathy for all his characters -- despite (or perhaps because of) their human failings -- is evident, and it is a sympathy that the audience will share.

What: Chekhov's "Three Sisters," presented by Pear Avenue Theatre

Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View

When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., through Sept. 30

Cost: Tickets are $20 for Thurs. & Sun. performances, $25 for Fri. & Sat., with discounts for students and seniors.

Info: Call the box office at 650-254-1148. For more information, or for ticketing online, go to


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