Nobody does “depressing” quite like Chekhov. The early twentieth century Russian dramatist had a knack for making us “laugh through the tears,” as they say. But a century later, it can prove difficult to relate to the malaise of a fading Russian aristocracy.
Fortunately for us, local playwright Timothy Braun has resurrected some Chekhovian characters to give us a breathe of cool air in these hot summer days.
Produced by Breaking String Theater Company and playing now through Aug. 17 at the Off Center, “Three, or the Sound of the Great Existential Nothingness” is an adaptation cum homage to Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” And though, as you may guess from the title, this is no romp through cheerful meadows, Braun’s reimagining tenders the pathos and catharsis of classic tragedy – with a lot of wit and dark humor to help us along the way.
The show is a fairly loose adaptation, so familiarity with Chekhov may or may not be an asset, and certainly isn’t necessary. Braun transports the malaise and loneliness of turn of the century Russia to contemporary small town America, where cell phone service is spotty and the local gossip is primarily fueled by Facebook. After the death of their spendthrift father, Andre (Jeff Mills) has taken responsibility for the welfare of his three adult sisters in a town where single women significantly outnumber the eligible males.
As the self-sacrificing and slowly deteriorating paterfamilias, Mills is downright excellent. Not only does he keep his family together when it’s falling apart at the seams, but with his narrative interjections and self-deprecating humor, he keeps the show together, too. Though not necessarily an aesthetically matched set, Dawn Youngs (Olga), Cami Alys (Masha), and Gricelda Silva (Irina) maintain excellent on-stage chemistry and their familial tenderness is touching.
The production enacts a powerful intimacy and vulnerability without guile. Lighting designer Steven Shirey has sprinkled the ceiling with an array of bare bulbs that prove more active and alive than we could have anticipated.
Director Graham Schmidt moves his actors through the in-the-round staging with dexterity, though a bit more attention to the diagonal sight lines would be helpful – as we were inevitably left staring at the back of a head during a few emotional scenes.
“Three” builds to a tremendously powerful climax, and even if the final outcome leaves us forlorn and disheartened by the tragic and seemingly inescapable state of this family’s affairs, we (hopefully) return home with a renewed appreciation for our own relationships.
“Three, or the Sound of the Great Existential Nothingness” continues through Aug. 17 at the Off Center. $15-$25. www.breakingstring.com