Travel back in time to 19th-century Russia

Watching Chekhov’s Three Sisters at Purnell’s Philip Chosky Theatre was seeing reality splayed across a 19th-century Russian backdrop. The characters are authentic — hopeful and hurting and flawed, so real that their lives seem to spill over into ours. And despite, or perhaps because of, the constant meditations on posterity, the entire production seems incredibly immediate, as if it were written last week instead of a hundred years ago. The themes — love, family, death and enlightenment — are as timeless as writing itself. Who hasn’t longed for a bygone time, a lost love, or a better future at some point?

Pamela Berlin, director of the Three Sisters, manages a heavy, lumbering machine with numerous turning wheels. Make no mistake, there are no one-dimensional characters here. Each and every one is fleshed out, given meaning, motivation and an overarching story intricate enough to exist as a stand-alone play. Even so, they all seem to come together and complement each other, not like neat pieces in a puzzle, but like we might do with our own friends and family. Speaking of us, as the audience, we’re always aware of the multiplicity of personalities elbowing each other for space on the larger canvas, which is itself barely capable of keeping it all contained. Even so, Berlin effectively brings it all together with extraordinary delicacy and balance.

The play starts with the three sisters just entering adulthood, full of dreams and optimism. Olga, the eldest, played by senior acting major Kelsey Carthew, is the maternal figure in the family. Kind and caring, particularly to her household servants, she is a teacher at the local high school. Masha, the middle sister, played by senior acting major Colleen Pulawski, is somewhat unhappy with her marriage, and falls head over heels for the idealistic Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin in the opening scene. The most direct character by far, Masha has a caustic wit that is a frequent source of humor. Irina, the youngest, played by senior acting major Olivia Lemmon, is an unabashed idealist. Fascinated by trivial things like a spinning top, she longs to return to the hustle and bustle of Moscow, and disdains the inertia that has befallen the so-called “gentry” of Russia.

Another important character is the brother of the three: Andrei, played by senior acting major Ben Edelman. He starts out as a man of learning, on the fast track to becoming a professor in Moscow. He also happens to be in love with a commoner called Natasha, much to the chagrin of the rest of his family. Natasha, played by senior acting major Cathryn Dylan, is another central character. She starts out a victim, mocked for her taste by the others, before going on to ironically turn the tables on the others.

All said and done, however, Three Sisters is no family soap opera. What was even more impressive than the depth of personalities was the depth of ideas on display. Characters ruminate on imposing ideas: Where will the world be in a hundred years, why do we need to do good productive work, how can we leave a legacy for eternity, and what is the purpose of knowledge, if not for the sake of itself? Besides being openly debated and discussed, these ideas are the underlying motivations that lead characters to make the decisions they do. Ultimately, I felt like I was watching life play out as it does, unscripted and untidy, all the while being aware of the underlying framework governing it all.

There are also no big, climactic events in Three Sisters. Earth shattering developments occur throughout, yet they are never given center stage. Instead, the audience sees a fluid stream of anticlimaxes that we come to terms with long after the fact. Three Sisters is undoubtedly an exhausting performance to watch, because it hits us little by little, until we are eventually aware of everything that has transpired before our eyes. The grand optimism expressed in the first act is gradually killed by a thousand cuts that we don’t see coming until the very end, by which point we are far too invested to not be heartbroken.

Three Sisters might make you smile, or it might make you cry. The characters might win your empathy for their struggles, or they might garner your disdain for their vapidness. What the entire experience will definitely make you do, however, is think. You’ll think about yourself, your friends and family, and your world at large, and come to realize that even though there may be uncertainty and darkness at every turn ahead, it’s the little things that add up to light the way.