Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at Ragdale: a “Rare Theatrical Experience”

by Joe DeRosa

I’ve never been in love. I’ve dreamt of it day and night, but my heart is like a fine piano no one can play because the key is lost.”       –Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters

There are moments when the stars align and the clouds blow away, when every note from every instrument swirls together into jazz, when the words line up just right on the page into poetry, when the colors come together on the canvas and we call it a masterpiece. These moments are rare and elusive, and there are no guarantees. Sometimes the song is just a song, the words are just words, the painting’s just a painting. Or maybe we just don’t look up that night.

But there are moments.

The UV Theater Project’s performance of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters was billed as a “rare theatrical experience.” The four performances over the three-night weekend run are the culmination of a brief but intensive two weeks of preparation by the company, including a week-long residence at Ragdale, a nonprofit artists’ community located on the former country estate of Architect Howard Van Doren Shaw in Lake Forest.

From the opening scene, the brilliance of the choice to perform this intimate and subtle yet passionate exploration of the Sergeyevna sisters and the people who orbit their lives on the grounds of one of the great architectural and natural treasures of the North Shore was clear.

Turn in the unassuming driveway with the small, well-hidden sign that reads Ragdale–I have managed to pass it every time I’ve visited–and you are transported. For 42 years, the Ragdale Foundation has not only provided a carefully constructed experience for its artists in residence to give them the time and space they need to make art in a beautiful natural setting, intentionally removed from the distractions of our day to day lives, they’ve also inadvertently created the perfect setting for a Chekhov play.

In this ideal setting, visionary director Daniel Cantor brought to life his beautiful vision for Chekhov’s quiet, thoughtful, passionate meditation on the nature of existence and the search for happiness and love. The result was every bit the “rare theatrical experience” the billing promised. In truth, it was much more.

With what must have been an extraordinary week living and rehearsing together at Ragdale, Cantor and the cast probed the depths of the deeply human characters and portrayed them with Chekhov’s trademark realism and humanity. While the short timeframe left moments in the play feeling unpolished, the overall effect was a stripped down, at times almost raw, emotional set of performances that captured the intensity and complexity of the play.        

Emily Shimskey shines in her role as Olga–the oldest of the three sisters–a teacher at pains to hold her family together as she tries to avoid her fate as the headmistress of the school. In the first act, Olga coaches and coaxes her younger sister Irina, played beautifully by Caitlin Cisco. Irina dreams of a life of work and love while she negotiates the advances of a series of not quite qualified suitors. Both Shimskey and Cisco give memorable performances as they try but ultimately fail to control their fate.  

Their brother Andrey (Sam Bell-Gurwitz) begins Act I dreaming of Moscow. Unsure of his future, he is hopelessly in love with Natasha (Regan Moro), a sweet and pretty, though simple girl from town who is teased by Andrey’s sisters for her lack of sophistication. Cast as a listless dreamer, filled with potential, but unsure how to realize his dreams, Bell-Gurwitz gives a strong performance. Meanwhile, Moro, who begins the play as a clear counterpart and supporting character to Andrey, is utterly captivating as she transforms from the sweet outsider, outshined by the sisters, to the manipulative, controlling, iron-fisted ruler of the house.    

As the sisters and their brother reflect on their lives, Masha (Jacqueline Toboni) their sulking, despondent middle sister, wonders at her fate. Masha is a creative spirit trapped in a marriage with Kulygin (Gus Schlanbusch), the good-hearted school teacher and self-avowed “happy man” whom she doesn’t love. Everything changes with the arrival of Vershinin (Chike Johnson), the philosopher/soldier whose love-struck nature and optimistic view of the future differ from the stark misery of his marriage and family life. At the sight of Vershinin, Masha’s outlook brightens and, for a time, so does the future of the family.

But by the second act, things have changed.

Three Sisters features a series of solid performances including Avery DiUbaldo as Tuzenbach, the kind, thoughtful Baron, and his nemesis, Solyony, played skillfully by Mitch Lerner. Bill McGough also gives a thoughtful performance as Chebutykin, the army doctor upon whose reflections the action seems to turn. In a play known for its complexity and interplay, the combined performances of the ensemble serve as a clear articulation of Chekhov’s brilliance.

But in an evening when the script, setting, and performances came together in a theatrical experience that was nothing short of remarkable, one performance stood out. Toboni’s portrayal of Masha is brilliant. In a series of twists and turns, Masha discovers love and all the hope and pain it brings with deft and humanity. And, brought along by Toboni, we travel with Masha from annoyance at her despondence in the opening scene to transfixing heartbreak by the end of the play.

There are moments when everything comes together. And with Ragdale as the perfect setting, with Cantor’s brilliant direction, with an ensemble of profoundly talented actors, with the thrill, terror, and raw emotion brought out by a week’s immersion in Chekhov’s masterful script, this performance of Three Sisters was one of them.

Seating is very limited for performances this evening and twice on Saturday. Call 847.234.1063 for tickets.

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