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Article posted: 7/12/2012 6:00 AM

Adaptation breathes new life into 'Three Sisters'

By Ted Cox

I'm a great admirer of the modern-day translations of Russian literature by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They take the musty old all-too-British translations of Constance Garnett and breathe new life into the English text. The language seems fresh and immediate, and as ever the Russian themes remain timeless.

"August: Osage County" playwright Tracy Letts takes that same dynamic even further with his new take on Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters," the last play of the season at Steppenwolf Theatre.

"Getting old is a drag," says battery commander Vershinin, played by John Judd.

"Winter is bringing me down," says Masha, the black-clad darkest of the three title characters, played by Carrie Coon.

The American idioms -- and American profanity, both deep blue and only mildly raw -- might seem foreign to Chekhov purists, but they take his original points about a family in decay and bring them firmly into the present. Far from being ponderous, Letts' "Three Sisters," as directed by Anna Shapiro, who also did "August," even breathes a little humor into the text.

Chekhov has Masha utter some thoughts on how tiresome the town's weather and its empty talk are: "So they waste the whole day here talking and talking. You live in a climate like this, expecting it to snow any minute, and you still carry on these conversations."

Letts converts that into the pithy, punchy: "What a climate. Snow and talk." That's a line a Chicagoan can identify with, even in a summer heat wave.

The stage, meanwhile, subtly emphasizes the theme of decay as well, with boards in the back rolling up, and a huge weathered frame hanging above, filled with an image of birch trees and with the Prozorov family home superimposed.

The three sisters of the Prozorov family -- Ora Jones' older, more practical Olga; Coon's deep, dark Masha, and Caroline Neff's bright and initially optimistic Irina -- have been exiled to a backwater town by their father's military career. With the father now dead -- and the mother barely mentioned, if at all -- the three yearn to return to Moscow along with their talented brother Andrey, played with a shy and sullen sense of entitlement by Dan Waller. For one reason or another, they never quite get there -- not to give anything away -- with the primary albatross being Andrey's marriage to an initially mousy and entirely ignorant local woman named Natasha, played by Alana Arenas, who soon comes to dominate the family, incapacitated as they are by their thoughts and dreams.

All the faith in this play is bad in what has always been an existential primer. "There is no happiness," says Vershinin, although he's actually one of the more optimistic characters, with a faith in human progress and enlightenment. "All we have to do is work. ... Happiness is for those in the future."

"Nothing changes," counters Baron Tusenbach, played by Derek Gaspar.

And leave it to Scott Jaeck's Dr. Chebutykin to utter the most nihilistic thought of all: "What difference does it make?"

As he did in the otherwise disappointing "Penelope" earlier this season at Steppenwolf, Jaeck finds a way connect to the emotional core of the play. Others aren't quite so successful. Coon has a thick, breathy way of reading lines, and where that worked in the Civil War drama "The March," here it makes Masha seem melodramatic.

"Where did it go? My Past?" Andrey mourns of his early promise, and Chekhov's play faced the same decay, the same inconsequence through rote repetition. Letts' "Three Sisters" brings it back to life, to impress us again with its hard-earned despair. As long as the text is translated into the present age, its timeless themes continue to resonate. The play is right in that, for all our evolution and surface enlightenment, nothing ever really changes.

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