Meet the Prozorovs. As Anton Chekhov’s 1903 play opens, eldest sister Olga (Irene Poole) reminds her siblings that it was exactly a year ago that their brigadier father died. By painful coincidence (the first of many in this exhaustive study of failed dreams and compromised hopes), it is also Irina’s 20th Natale day, making the celebrations a bittersweet affair. Middle sister Masha (Lucy Peacock) lounges on a settee, whistling to annoy Olga then bursting into song (“A green oak grows by a curving shore”) just after family friend and sometime army physician, Doctor Chebutykin (James Blendick) is about to have a most extravagant present delivered to his favourite.
It is revealed that the good doctor (now struggling with chronic alcoholism) has more than a passing interest in the household: he later admits to being deeply in love with the girls’ long-departed mother, but—when questioned—can’t remember if she also returned that “sentiment.” Selective memory is now the strongest medicine in Chebutykin’s bag—his most recent patient died while under his care due to his lethal inability to recall the cure.
Andrei (Gordon S. Miller) appears at first to be the Bohemian son. The semi-passable violinist has visions of a professorship in Moscow. Indeed, the entire clan longs to return to the Russian metropolis (900 miles away, their father’s posting to the country ended their love affair with the cultural and intellectual centre of their homeland).
The only in-law comes in the meek form of Kulygin (Peter Hutt), Masha’s doting husband and master of a boys’ school. Also in the educational field (teacher), Olga seems wed to her work and destined for stoic spinsterhood.
Not surprisingly, given the late patriarch’s position and profession, several military personnel are attending the birthday luncheon. Chief amongst them is Baron Tuzenbach (Sean Arbuckle) who—just ten years senior—is pining for Irina but can’t light her fire. His wise-cracking, hand-cream addict, Solyony (Juan Chioran), delivers many of the playwright’s funniest lines and a key plot point after he decides to act upon his obsessive love for the same sister.
The new man in town is Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin who was chummy with the family during their Moscow days and discovers to his sudden delight and horror that he’s instantly smitten with the now-grown-up, worldly Masha, despite (or more likely because) being saddled with daughters of his own and a suicidal wife. Filling out the complement are two second lieutenants: the dashing guitarist Fedotik (Jesse Aaron Dwyre) and his musical bud/colleague Rohde (Noah Reid).
The soon-to-be newest sister is the effervescent, manipulative and rudely class-conscious Natasha. She’s ensnared the gullible, slightly paunchy Andrey and has the first addition to the nursery installed in record time following their wedding (Olga’s cryptic comment—allegedly about an unfashionable belt—discreetly announces the out-of-wedlock pregnancy to all those who choose to hear).
Finally, a frail nanny (Joyce Campion)—who has been with the household thirty years—is soon under threat of dismissal once Natasha moves in and begins her reign of terror.
This production succeeds magnificently. Martha Henry (who played Olga in 1976) has assembled a first-rate cast and crew and instilled in them the notion of teamwork as the key to this challenging play. To their considerable credit, most everyone dampens their individual egos, allowing line (even when overlapping), gesture (the final embrace speaks volumes) and reaction to lead to the next as seamlessly as the pages of Susan Coyne’s adaptation.
Marc Desormeaux’s one-man band deftly supports the action and keeps the ear in the countryside setting as surely as the last-act echoes rolling across the garden’s nearby river provide a fascinating metaphor that most speeches, outcomes and relationships have been heard, expected and endured before.
Chekhov has his players—particularly Vershinin—rationalize their miserable circumstances (Andrei’s huge gambling debts and quashed ambition doom the sisters to backwater purgatory) through philosophy: we must suffer hardships now, so that our children’s children will know nothing but peace and happiness. Such a broad statement, frequently mentioned in various forms, seems to be a great comfort to the willing adulterers (Vershinin and Masha; Natasha and Andrei’s unseen superior) and a willful-blindness buffer to their hapless, quasi-contented mates.
When her survival instinct finally kicks in, Irina decides to accept the Baron’s offer of marriage and a simple life (he has quit the army to find “real” work at a brick factory) despite having no feelings for him at all. The playwright’s final irony is as brilliant as it is depressing: rather than feel remorse for her unloved fiancé’s sudden passing, the disillusioned sister ought to seize the opportunity and make a life worth living, but no one seems to know how so it’s left to future generations.
Thanks to Henry’s perception, understanding and leadership, Chekhov’s desolate world dares us to examine our own. JWR