Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of ‘Three Sisters’ is new, improved

The birch trees are familiar. So are the feelings of sadness, yearning and ennui expressed by the title characters. Yet the production of “Three Sisters” onstage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is a new take on Anton Chekhov’s 1900 masterpiece — new, but faithful to the original.

In this luminous version by playwright Sarah Ruhl, beautifully directed by Les Waters, the classic play remains firmly set in the Russian provinces during the waning days of the 19th century.  

There, far from their beloved Moscow, the Prozorov sisters — Olga, the dutiful eldest (Wendy Rich Stetson); Masha, the unhappily married middle one (Natalia Payne); and Irina, their gentle younger sister (Heather Wood) — spend their days brooding over the past, dreading the future and enduring the interminable passage of time.

Ruhl, whose earlier plays “Eurydice” and “In the Next Room” were hits at Berkeley Rep (and on Broadway), makes their anguish palpable.  

Working from a translation by Elise Thoron, Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati, the playwright animates Chekhov’s characters — servants and soldiers, philosophers and suitors, and the sisters themselves — in vibrant theatrical terms and spare, often surprisingly contemporary language.

Waters’ three-hour production, played on Annie Smart’s handsome multilevel set in the company’s Thrust Stage theater, is poised and fluid.

From the opening scene, a gathering for Irina’s birthday, to the devastating night the town burns (all aided by the evocative lighting designs of Alexander V. Nichols), the director creates stage pictures of focused intensity.

The cast, aptly costumed by Ilona Somogyi, hadn’t completely jelled on opening night, but the principal performances were remarkable. Stetson plays the long-suffering Olga with steely strength, and Wood makes Irina’s descent from idealism to defeat one of the evening’s most wrenching moments.  

Payne’s Masha is all nerves and need, particularly in her scenes with her lover, Vershinin (the excellent Bruce McKenzie.)  

James Carpenter gives an affecting performance as the aging doctor, Chebutykin, and Thomas Jay Ryan is an articulate Tuzenbach. Keith Reddin (Kulygin), Alex Moggridge (Andrei) and Barbara Oliver (Anfisa) make indelible contributions.

Ruhl, Waters and the cast imbue each character with humanity, and the result is a production suffused with warmth. That doesn’t always happen when directors approach “Three Sisters,” but Berkeley Rep has made something rare — a staging as familiar as Chekhov’s birch trees, and as familiar as today.

IF YOU GO

Three Sisters

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Where: Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays; 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Thursdays and Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 22

Tickets: $14.50 to $73

Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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