Dreams deferred can easily become totally thwarted, as playwright Anton Chekhov knew so well.
Chekhov's characters are known for their struggles with large issues, like mortality, hope, despair, the meaning of life and longing for the unattainable. The intimate, moody production of "Three Sisters" that opened Thursday night at Classic Stage Company is genuinely affecting, with a very talented cast that tackles these large issues with zest.
Using Paul Schmidt's American translation, director Austin Pendleton provides a fresh view of the complexity and humor of Chekhov's characters, and the way their personal journeys reflected societal changes unfolding in 1900 Russia.
As the play opens, the adult Prozorov sisters express their continued longing to leave the small, provincial town where they've lived for eleven years, and return to Moscow, where they grew up. Their only entertainment is the company of soldiers from the military base where their father, now deceased, was commander.
Juliet Rylance literally shines with hope and youthful optimism as the youngest sister, Irina, sweetly innocent at age 20. Irina rhapsodizes about the potential joys of going off to work each day, rather than enduring boredom at home in the upper class tradition. Rylance delicately balances Irina's optimism about life's possibilities with her forebodings and disappointments, in a performance both heartbreaking and revelatory.
Jessica Hecht masterfully inhabits her anxious, depressed characterization of the eldest sister, spinster Olga. After four unpleasant years teaching at a girls' high school, Olga clings to her hope of returning to Moscow as "the only thing that keeps me going."
Maggie Gyllenhaal is also radiant, restlessly prowling around as Masha, the beautiful but unhappily married middle sister. Gyllenhaal ably swings between bored remoteness and bursts of melodrama. Masha defiantly declares, "Either you know the reason why you're alive, or nothing makes any difference."
Josh Hamilton is rather mopey, yet genuinely moving at times, as their brother, Andrey, who squanders his talents and lets his sisters down in a big way. Paul Lazar is sensitive as Masha's bumbling husband, Kulygin, bringing gentle humor to many of his lines.
Marin Ireland is somewhat shrill as Natasha, Andrey's silly fiancee, who becomes his shrewish wife. Louis Zorich is a colorful Chebutykin, an alcoholic, retired doctor whose apathetic phrase, "What difference does it make?," permeates everyone's lives.
Soldier Baron Tuzenbach is ably portrayed by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, while Anson Mount makes his Captain Solyony awkwardly disagreeable. George Morfogen and Roberta Maxwell are quite effective as a couple of elderly servants.
The arrival of a new commander, Colonel Vershinin (a confident, dashing Peter Sarsgaard) awakens life and hope within Masha, but soon everyone finds that their lives aren't working out as they'd hoped.
The open set design by Walt Spangler is elegant and practical, with one large table set in the middle for three of the four acts. It's cleverly used as an attic floor during the near-farcical third act, in which everyone keeps popping in and out of a room where the sisters are trying to share private revelations.
As the play comes to a close, some devastating events occur. Many characters express disillusionment, yet most resolutely maintain some vague hope for the future to be better. The sisters all vow to go on living, even if they still don't know, as Olga says mournfully, "why we live, why we suffer."
This stirring production is performing through March 6.