The Three Sisters is a long, long play. Four acts of idle, wealthy Russians -- wasting away in the provinces, hoping for happiness and wishing they could lead more glamorous lives in Moscow -- can have the effervescence of a stagnant puddle. And part of the trouble with Chekhov is that most people know how the play will end: The last act is a matter of waiting things out.
Not that Perloff's production is badly acted. René Augesen, Lorri Holt, Steven Anthony Jones, Marco Barricelli, and newcomer Katharine Powell all do beautiful, subtle work. Certain scenes are crystalline, like perfect photographs, and the first two acts move with a slow, domestic music -- a bagatelle composed of spring sunshine and rainy nights -- that may be the whole point of putting on Chekhov's plays. What Perloff's reading seems to miss is the humor. Last year the California Shakespeare Festival produced a high-spirited version of The Seagull that supported Chekhov's old complaint that his best plays were not tragedies, but comedies. This Three Sisters makes vague gestures in both directions.
"lga, Másha, and Irína -- in order of age, oldest to youngest -- are the cultivated daughters of a Russian military commander who died after moving from Moscow to a far-off garrison town. Now they're stuck. Their older brother, Andréi Prózorov, used to teach in a Moscow university; now he's climbing the ladder of local government. "lga has become a schoolteacher. Másha is the dissatisfied wife of Kulygin, another schoolteacher. Only Irína, at 20, still hopes fervidly for love and a brilliant future career in Moscow, not to mention the future of her bright but untested proto-communist ideals, which tarnish by the end of the play. Their brother's wife, Natasha, is a pushy provincial with no manners or taste who starts to overrun the moribund household.
The play gets its first solid push from Barricelli, playing Col. Vershínin. He strides in looking regal but hesitant in his absurd uniform and shining boots. He remembers the sisters as girls in Moscow. He was friends with their father, he says, "and now I've finally got my own command -- here." With posture and gesture Barricelli shows us all of Vershínin's qualities: insecurity, virility, arrogance, an urge to pontificate, and a desire to be polite. His attentions focus on Másha, the gloomy dissatisfied wife, and Másha responds like a quivering jelly. Augesen is just as rich and complex as Barricelli: Her Másha can be cruel and short with her sisters and the peasant help, but in the faux-glamorous military presence of Vershínin, she sweetens. "Vulgarity upsets me," she tells him in a private scene, flirtatious and damp with suggestion. "It wounds me" -- as if she'd like to be wounded.
Gregory Wallace plays her husband Kulygin as an amusing buffoon, a pedant who likes to find flaws and imprecision in everyone but himself, and Wallace does have good instincts as a comedian, but the mannered whine he resorts to in all his ACT roles does him no good here. His character sounds and behaves too much like his other characters, and not enough like a petty Russian schoolmaster.
Holt is nicely dry and resigned as "lga, the unwilling schoolteacher, and Powell's Irína is a pleasant surprise. This show marks Powell's professional debut, and in the early scenes she makes Irína chirpy and sweetly hopeful, beribboned and pleased with herself but a little dim. After a noble speech about work and human nature in the first act, Powell undercuts Irína gracefully in the third, with an equally immature but now disgusted speech about the work she's actually done. Drudgery in the telegraph office, then in the municipal building -- "Nothing, nothing, there's no satisfaction in any of it!" Irína says, and declares herself washed up at 24.
Mirjana Jokovic does broad and funny work as Natasha, the twittering, triumphant provincial wife, and Jones is just as broad but well-tuned playing Chebutykin, an army doctor with alcoholic tendencies. He wears a wide beard and a pillbox hat, like a grandfatherly Cossack, and makes sweeping declarations in his preacher's voice. His drunken speech in Act 3 is masterful.
In spite of all these fine performances and a clear American translation by Paul Schmidt, the show falters in Act 3 and seems to limp through Act 4. The tension goes soft; you wish the sisters would quit complaining and go to Moscow already. Chekhov wanted to show frivolous Russians suffering by their own devices -- depressed people who waste their lives wishing they weren't so depressed. The easy trap is to take their sorrows seriously and turn them into a sort of existential tragedy, instead of a simple melancholic story observed from a wry distance. Perloff understands the challenge, but doesn't meet it; she hasn't directed with enough wryness, or paced her actors for a three-hour marathon of gently dissolving hopes.