BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
An increasingly emotional interpretation of "Three Sisters" awaits people lucky enough to snare a ticket to director Austin Pendleton's poignant revival of Anton Chekhov's 1901 drama that opened Thursday at Classic Stage Company.
This well-known Russian classic regarding sisters who dream of escaping their dull, provincial existence — but somehow never do — has been staged thoughtfully by Pendleton with sensitive, subtle detail and a very fine cast whose characters believably reflect change over several years.
With a rueful smile flickering across her heart-shaped face as the middle sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal's deeply-felt Masha apparently realizes that her adulterous romance with Peter Sarsgaard's gentle, regretful Vershinin will bring little more than fleeting happiness. So when Vershinin's regiment finally marches away, Masha's anguish at their farewell is unexpected and nearly shocking in its intensity.
As the youngest sister, Irina, whose vibrancy erodes into anxiety as the years go by, Juliet Rylance seems more like a daughter than a sibling to Jessica Hecht's kindly Olga. Wistful Irina and compassionate Olga are united in growing dislike for their invasive sister-in-law Natasha, boldly developed by Marin Ireland as a bashful ninny who evolves inexorably into a nasty household tyrant. Meanwhile, Josh Hamilton's rumpled Andrey slowly goes sour with regret over his marriage.
The ill-fated Tuzenbach is portrayed amiably by Ebon Moss-Bachrach as an earnest soul who doesn't mind (much) that Irina's affection for him is so tentative. Anson Mount's awkwardly-mannered Solyony clearly is a dangerous misfit. Paul Lazar is a pathetically funny figure as Masha's pedantic spouse. In cameo roles, Louis Zorich, Roberta Maxwell and George Morfogen contribute fully-realized individuals.
If Paul Schmidt's translation seems a bit too wordy — and contemporary American in flavor — Pendleton wisely and gently steers the drama from the hopefulness of springtime into bleaker circumstances. The excellence of the performances and the forlorn trajectory of Chekhov's story gradually fuse into a genuine sense of heartbreak.
Designer Walt Spangler's setting furthers the idea how time wears everything away. Classic Stage's airy yet intimate three-sided arena space is dominated by a vast table that's beautifully set with flowers and china for a celebratory lunch when the play begins. By the disillusioned conclusion, the table has been stripped and is upended against a wall to suggest how the sisters have put aside their happier past for an uncertain future.
"Three Sisters" continues through March 6 at Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St., New York. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.classicstage.org.