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Tracy Letts brings new life to ‘Three Sisters’ at Steppenwolf

Sisters Mash(Carrie Cofrom left) Irin(Caroline Neff) Olg(OrJones) yearn for Moscow Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s productiAntChekhov’s “Three Sisters.”

Sisters Masha (Carrie Coon, from left), Irina (Caroline Neff) and Olga (Ora Jones) yearn for Moscow in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.”

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When: Through Aug. 26

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20-$75

Info: (312) 335-1650;

Updated: August 10, 2012 6:22AM

As the story goes, after watching a production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at Steppenwolf Theatre decades ago, John Malkovich cried out in a fit of frustration: “Here, I’ll give you the money; just buy those damn train tickets and GO to Moscow!”

But Malkovich might just want to pay a return visit to Steppenwolf this summer to catch Anna D. Shapiro’s fascinating revival of Chekhov’s 1901 play featuring a fresh but faithful adaptation by actor-playwright Tracy Letts. Though in many ways traditional (aside from a smattering of obscenities that might have been handled more ingeniously), this production has a speed and light, a sharpness and edgy heart that make it newly compelling and in a strange way also make it feel like an aristocratic Russian counterpoint to Eugene O’Neill’s gathering of thwarted souls in “The Iceman Cometh.”

Yes, the Prozorov sisters are still trapped on a beautiful old estate in the dreary Russian backwater where their late father was stationed with the army. And yes, they are still dreaming of returning to the glittering city of Moscow, where they grew up, and where they believe all the romantic and intellectual stimulation they crave is to be found. They also sense that all their intense, unyielding yearning will remain little more than pipe dreams, though such false hopes are what keep them alive, enable them to suffer and endure.

“Three Sisters” is often described as a play in which “nothing happens and everything happens,” which is a fine way of saying that life happens as the members of an extended Russian family, all of them at odds with themselves and the world, are engaged in that most basic of impulses: the pursuit of happiness. They might attempt to elude this futile pursuit by settling for relationships that are stable but passionless, or by devoting themselves to work that is ultimately spirit-draining. But invariably the yearning and regret, and the terrible feeling of being trapped and wholly impotent to change things, overtake them. And the crucial questions keep reverberating: What is the purpose of life? Why do human beings suffer so? What can be done beyond simply soldiering on? And who is listening?

In a story unfolding over several years, Chekhov gives us an assortment of philosophical and pragmatic personalities, each full of discontent or self-deluding denial. And as one of them wonders “Why is the brilliant Russian mind so depressed?,” Shapiro, the Tony Award-winning director who oversaw the chaotic family in Letts’ “August: Osage County,” choreographs her expert cast of 14 principals in this group portrait of disappointment and the dark human comedy. Her masterful set designer, Todd Rosenthal (in league with lighting designer Donald Holder), has devised a vast, free-flowing, horizonal space into which the characters often seem to drift as if unmoored. Only a forest of tall white birch trees (a beautifully framed scrim that adds just the right touch of distance) stands resolute.

The three sisters are highly distinctive. The oldest, Olga (Ora Jones, a model of rectitude and decency), is the spinster schoolteacher who clings to the old graces and senses there will be nothing more for her. Then there is Masha (Carrie Coon, full of mordant, modern bite and ravishing in a brief, dreamy waltz sequence), the bitter, acerbic beauty who is stuck in a marriage to the adoring, laughably pedantic teacher, Kulygin (Yasen Peyankov, whose Slavic DNA serves him brilliantly here), and is briefly entranced by the older but charismatic officer, Vershinin (John Judd in an impressive reversal from his recent role in “Iceman”), a married man with his own household of troubles. And finally there is the youngest, Irina (a radiant, subtly mood-shifting Caroline Neff), whose dreams are most alive, who captures several male hearts, but who ends up not even reaping the rewards of realistic acceptance in the form of the sweet, devoted Baron Tusenbach (an understated Derek Gaspar).

As for the sisters’ overeducated brother, Andrei (Dan Waller, notably blistering in his confession about his wife), he has freely embraced failure and married Natasha (Alana Arenas, in fierce Cruella de Ville mode), a village girl who quickly morphs into a crass, upwardly mobile manipulator.

Adding spice to the mix are Chebutykin (Scott Jaeck in terrific form as the self-loathing doctor who futilely pined for the sisters’ mother); Solyony (Usman Ally, ideally bristling and volatile as the strange, angry, covertly romantic captain); Fedotik (B. Diego Colon as the young, bearish man with a big heart), and the wonderful Maury Cooper and Mary Ann Thebus as the two elderly servants with lifelong ties to the Prozorovs.

Broadway designer Jess Goldstein has created museum-worthy costumes. And David Singer’s original music, particularly a gorgeously sung hymn in Russian Orthodox mode, adds a burst of the spiritual.

Throughout “Three Sisters” the characters muse about how future generations will view them. Now, more than a century after Chekhov imagined them, they live vividly on stage. They may be rooted in a very different time and place, yet they are entirely recognizable.

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