Carolyn Gray, Krista Jackson, Erin McGrath (Mairen Kops)
Bruce McManus' adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters proves one thing: you can take the Chekhov out of Russia, but you can't take the Russian out of Chekhov.
Which is not a bad thing. Nor is that to say this isn't a very smart - and by and large, very good - adaptation. But it does mean those things that are very "Russian" in Chekhov - a bleak sense of humour, hefty themes, and a frank acknowledgment that the human condition is often misery - are present here.
This in spite of the fact that McManus moves the action of the play from turn-of-the-century Russia to Moose Jaw in the late 1950s. As in Chekhov's original, the story centres around three sisters - pragmatic eldest Olga (Carolyn Gray); Masha, the middle sister crushed by the lack of passion in her life (Krista Jackson); and Irina, still young enough to have hope for the future (Erin McGrath). The only excitement in their lives comes from the pilots at the local Air Force base, and from the hope they'll one day escape the stifling boredom of their environs (in Chekhov's play, the sisters longed to reach Moscow; here, they'll settle for Montreal).
It's a big story, and Theatre Projects Manitoba (co-presenting the show with zone41, an independent company) does it proud with a big production, including a cast of 11 (the sisters are joined by Rob McLaughlin, Ardith Boxall, Gord Tanner, Omar Khan, Tom Keenan, Andrew Cecon, Harry Nelken, and Patricia Hunter) and stunning period design (Mad Men fans will drool over David Hewlett's set dressing and Angela Fey's costuming). And McManus takes his time unfolding the story - the production runs a full three hours.
Certainly, there's a lot packed into those 180 minutes. The play deals with the nature of happiness, with questions of class and privilege, and with what it means to live pinned between the past and the future in that most uncertain of periods - the present.
Even so, it doesn't need three hours to do that. Opening with an overlong and exposition-laden monologue, it begins with more a whimper than a bang, and takes its sweet time wrapping up in the final act.
Those qualms aside, though, McManus' adaptation is a success. His characters are fully drawn, he gives the actors rich text to work with, and he skillfully captures the nature of their environment, which itself is almost a character (consider Olga's familiar-sounding summation: "It's cold, and in the summer, the mosquitoes own us").
Under Christopher Brauer's skilled direction, the A-list local cast mines the complex characters for their full worth, and creates some arresting scenes on stage: a lonely young woman spinning with a pinwheel in hand, alone on New Year's Eve; a man's heart silently breaking as he comes face-to-face with betrayal; Masha's quiet isolation as she watches the world burn around her.
The only significant knock against Three Sisters is that it may try your patience. But patience is ultimately rewarded with a beautiful, moving, and rich production.
Joff Schmidt, CBC Theatre Reviewer