The title is the same, but the play, and the playwright, are different. Lucy Caldwell has adapted Anton Chekhov’s 1899 play Three Sisters and set it in her native Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles of the 1990’s. Olga, Masha, and Irina become Orla, Marianne, and Erin, and while they live in a different place and time, their experiences are parallel. The Russian sisters long to escape to Moscow, their Irish counterparts dream of going to America. Caldwell has layered her Irish experience over Chekhov’s plot and characters in a deeply satisfying and wholly artistic manner.
Chekhov is a playwright you either connect with and love or cannot fathom and hate. If you fall into the latter camp you probably won’t like this play because Caldwell has created a world that is thoroughly Chekhovian. So much so that, when I have been speaking about this production, I keep referring to Chekhov as the playwright. It is that hard to discern where he leaves off and Caldwell picks up.
And director Christopher McCann, a founding member of Living Room Theatre, has appeared in their previous productions of Chekhov’s other major plays, so this production feels fully Chekhovian. The only thing I felt Caldwell missed was Chekhov’s humor. I usually laugh a lot at a Chekhov play, and while there were laughs here, they were generated more through word play than by the characters and situations.
Three Sisters is staged in the Carriage Barn on the Park-McCullough estate in North Bennington, and each of the four acts is performed in a different part of the building, with the audience literally moved from place to place, revealing different angles and points of view as the actors use every nook and cranny, sometimes in full sight of the audience, other times obscured, or just overheard. The company is adept at maneuvering the crowd and the seating, and the chance to stretch one’s legs and acknowledge the shift in the time and place of the play is refreshing rather than jarring.
Orla (Monique Vukovic), Marianne (Hannah Beck), Erin (Oona Roche), their brother Andy (Jay Reum), and, as time moves on, his wife Siu Jen (Xingrong Chen) and their two children Bobby and Sophie, all live together in the family homestead in East Belfast. Friends, lovers, suitors, spouses come and go. They all want to be somewhere other than where they are at that moment, and the moment after that, and the moment after that. But each character is so real, so frail, so mortal, that you are immediately able to relate across the decades, across the cultures and empathize with them.
As in Chekhov, everything happens and nothing happens over the five years that pass during the course of the play. The play opens on Erin’s 18th birthday, as friends gather to celebrate in a half-hearted attempt at a costume party (Randolyn Zinn gets to have fun with the costumes here – Orla’s Marge Simpson get-up is a hoot) . Act II takes place two years later during a restless lunch hour; Act III in the wee hours of a night in 1998 when terror reigns outside on the streets of Belfast; and Act IV a few days later, on the day before Erin’s wedding.
Apparently there was a wave of Chinese immigrants coming to Northern Ireland in the 1990’s as Britain turned control of Hong Kong back to the People’s Republic of China. Thus Caldwell has turned Chekhov’s awkward social misfit Natasha into a racial misfit, Siu Jen, the sister-in-law who the sisters call Jenny, insisting they can’t pronounce her real name. This harkens back to the treatment Irish immigrants to America received, when they were often called by generalized Anglo names by their non-Irish employers. This is Caldwell’s biggest shift from the original, but it works very well. Despite the prejudice the other characters show towards her, Sui Jen is not a sympathetic character, and Chen plays her with a stubborn abrasiveness.
Born in Belfast in 1981, Caldwell was an adolescent during The Troubles, a period she characterized in 2007 interview with The Independent as “when things seemed to be spiralling irrevocably out of control.” I found this excerpt from an interview she gave to the Irish Times in May 2016 to be particularly revealing:
“Three Sisters has long been my favourite play – I’ve seen countless productions and adaptations of it, including two in Russian – and I’ve talked about doing my own version for years…Then I was pregnant, and not going anywhere any time soon. But just after my son was born, he hovered between life and death for some weeks, and that… How can I put this, it cracked me open. I came out of that experience and thought: what am I waiting for? What am I scared of?…I realized, of course, that what I’d been scared of was writing about was my teens and early twenties – my secret, most shameful hopes and fears, all the longing, and oh the loneliness. Because that’s what Three Sisters is to me: the intensity of yearning and the crippling despair, the bleakness and sudden flashes of hope. There’s a raw, restless, punky energy and edgy black comedy to the play that’s often stifled or muffled when it’s presented as a lightly melancholic, polite drawing-room drama.”
And, of course, that is the difference. Caldwell is a woman and a mother writing about these motherless women, a play she couldn’t write until she had experienced first-hand the short space between birth and death. Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing a baby throw a woman’s body and her life completely out of her own control, thus enabling Caldwell to write lucidly about that other time when her life was impacted by events she couldn’t control; in a language created to convey that sense of mortality that we only survive by ignoring for most of our lives.
In both versions of this story the women are central and the men peripheral. Andy only matters because he is the sisters’ brother and Siu Jen’s husband. DJ Cool (Oliver Wadsworth) only matters as he is married to Marianne, and Vershinin (Allen McCullough) only matters because she loves him. Baron (Mike Broadhurst) and Simon (Kario Marcel) matter as they love Erin, which rivalry turns them against each other. Beattie (Kirk Jackson) only matters as he provides a link to the sisters’ parents and their past.
Living Room Theatre lives and works closely together as a company during their rehearsal period, which enhances the pseudo-naturalism of this kind of theatre. The cast mesh together naturally, each bringing his/her own strengths to the production. While Vukovic, Beck, and Roche don’t look like sisters, you fully accept them as such by the end. Everyone playing Irish struggles with the accent, but they manage to sound Irish enough to make the American Vershinin sound thoroughly Yank.
Chase McCloud, who also plays a soldier named Teddy, has done the sound and lights. I saw a matinee on a sunny summer day and so the effects of his obviously carefully curated lighting was muted, but they enhance the natural beauty of the golden honey-colored wood of the Carriage Barn.
Living Room Theatre presents Three Sisters by Lucy Caldwell, adapted from the play of the same name by Anton Chekhov, directed by Christopher McCann, and produced by Randolyn Zinn, from August 2-18, 2018 in the Carriage Barn at the Park-McCullough House, 1 Park Street in North Bennington, VT. Sound and lights by Chase McCloud; costumes and props by Randolyn Zinn; additional props and running crew Sarabell Wrigley; additional props Gerry Cuite; dialect coach Oliver Wasworth. CAST: Kirk Jackson as Beattie, Oliver Wadsworth as DJ Cool, Allen McCullough as Vershinin, Xingrong Chen as Siu Jen, Hannah Beck as Marianne, Kario Marcel as Simon, Monique Vukovic as Orla, Oona Roche as Erin, Jay Reum as Andy, Matt Dallal as Rod, Chase McCloud as teddy, Michael Broadhurst as Baron.
Evening performances at 7:30 pm August 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17 & 18; matinees at 2 pm August 5 & 12. Suggested contribution $25. For reservations call 802-442-5322 or visit http://www.lrtvt.org/