In college, the old adage goes: sleep, work, social life; choose two. For Anton Chekhov, a similarly triangular logic exists: happiness, knowledge, safety; choose two and constantly long for the third. Or better yet: choose all three, believe they are within your grasp, discover how wrong you were, become disillusioned, find an adequately expressive metaphor, sink into existential grief.
The Hypocrites adaptation of “Three Sisters” aims to bring Chekhov to a generation of “Downton Abbey” viewers. It is an honorable task that the company is more than equipped to handle. There are moments of audience-baiting—a casual “whatever” or two gets dropped—though things mostly stick to the script. There is a wedding, a fire, a couple of affairs and a duel, all of which take place offstage. Like a decadent feast, the real story takes place in the kitchen, not the dining room.
Naturally, this is Chekhov’s prerogative. Given the atmospheric nature of “Three Sisters,” the challenge is in staging. Director Geoff Button is undeniably talented in this regard. While the period and tableau may require rigidity, his actors remain fluid and graceful. They work harmoniously toward the play’s delightful anticlimax and dour conception of life constantly on the cusp of truly beginning.
Paradoxically, and in true Russian fashion, there are no inconsequential roles because all roles are inconsequential. A philosophy-spouting baron (Noah Simon) and a lovesick Lieutenant (Vance Smith) end up resigned to the dominating force of fate in the face of personal agency. Yet the most tragic arc is that of Bill McGough’s elderly doctor who instills the phrase “out of my hands” with new meaning. All of the play’s delicate tenderness can be found in the creases in McGough’s face and the penetrating longing of his eyes.
“Three Sisters” is not without its imperfections. While her stage sisters Mary Williamson (as Olga) and Hilary Williams (as Irina) navigate the long voyage from trivial to somber, Lindsey Gavel, as Masha in the middle, seems slightly adrift. Radiant in her grief, her transformation nevertheless lacks depth. The significance of the final act is slightly diluted by a lack of urgency and some musical cues distract from the drama. Really, though, these are proverbial loogies hocked into the void as The Hypocrites present a very good staging of a truly great play. (Kevin Greene)
The Hypocrites at The Den Theatre Mainstage, 1333 North Milwaukee, the-hypocrites.com, $28. Through June 6.