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A Family and Their Friends Face Existential Angst in the Excellent Three Sisters by Mamai Theatre Company 

Quiet desperation, Russian style

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If you're like most people, one week sort of bleeds into the next as we meander through our seemingly trivial and absurd lives. And unless you had a stretch of days like Caitlyn Jenner had last week, it might be hard for you to remember what happened, buried as we are by the ennui that daily life often imposes on us.

Well, if you and I were smarter, we could have turned that often ridiculous, semi-bleak existence into great art, as Anton Chekhov did when he wrote his tragicomedies including Three Sisters, now being produced by the Mamai Theatre Company. This female-run theater company, specializing in classic works, usually delivers quality goods and this production is no exception.

Chekhov has a particular gift for displaying nice people of the privileged class submerged in the wreckage of dashed dreams and futility. And if that doesn't sound like a spiffy way to spend a couple hours in a theater, you might be right. The one condition is when an acting company can illuminate those characters and, even in the absence of anything very compelling going on, lash your attention to the small moments at hand.

And that's what the Mamai cast, under the crisp and often inspired direction of Bernadette Clemens, does for most of this production. Thanks to sharply dilineated performances and a lush set design by Don McBride, Mamai has created an existential shadow box in which we can observe comfortable people in their native, uncomfortable habitat.

The three sisters of the Prozorova family—Olga, Masha and Irinia—are whiling away their days in the rural home where their recently deceased father once ran a military garrison. Eldest sister Olga is the spinster (at 28!), Masha is married to an old fart who teaches Latin at the high school, and Irina is the youngest and filled with hope. All in their twenties, the women were born in Moscow and long for the city life, or at least some excitement. But they are stuck out in the sticks, along with their brother Andrei and the doofus woman who eventually becomes the household harridan, his wife Natasha.

Also hanging around are Chebutykin (a cheerily fatalistic Robert Hawkes)—a former army doctor who once loved the sisters' mother—and some soldiers from the garrison who are drawn to the pulchritude in the house nearby.

As things progress over four acts and five years, we see how these lives gently collide and disintegrate. And how, as time goes on, none of the characters can really get a fix on why they're here and what their lives mean. Masha clearly is fed up with her pretentious prig of a husband (a wittily modulated Curt Arnold), and falls in love with Vershinin, a married soldier who has been dubbed "the lovesick major." But he harbors grandiose fantasies about the future of the world, and this sweeps the normally cynical Masha off her feet.

Anjanette Hall as Masha and Tom Woodward as Vershinin craft a tidy little bond, so that when Vershinin has to move out with his company, their parting resonates powerfully. As Olga, Natalie Green provides a strong center, as this teacher (and later headmistress) shows compassion for others, including the elderly servant woman Anfisa (Bernice Bolek).

The blossoming Irina, as played by Meghan Grover, has all the youthful dreaminess and vulnerability you'd ever want. Her frequent, extreme mood swings might seem a bit much until you acknowledge the hothouse environment in which she exists (in this household, being bi-polar passes for great entertaiment). And when she falls in "like" with quirky Baron Tuzenbach, you feel sad for her foreshortened prospects until fate deals her a different hand. Nate Miller is affecting as Tuzenbach, although his furious twitching early on begins to feel like a strange nervous condition.

Shawn Mann strikes a bashful and flawed presence as Andrei, and Hillary Wheelock has some deftly turned moments as the snarky Natasha, manipulating her sisters-in-law and browbeating the help. However, some of her fury seems overplayed at times. Tony Zanoni makes some bold choices as the weirdo army captain Solyony, but they almost always work—even when he comes off as a refugee from the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. But although Stephen Vasse-Hansell generates quite a few chuckles, his hard-of-hearing doorkeeper Ferapont too often comes off as misplaced Gabby Hayes (hey, Google him!).

Chekhov makes no secret of the existential themes he's working with, as several characters recognize the fruitlessness of their lives. And some lines have an ironic ring, especially when Vershinin muses: "In old days, men were absorbed in wars, filling all their existence with marches, raids, victories. But now all that is a thing of the past, leaving behind it a great void."

Given the constant state of war we seem to live in these days, one might wish for some of the peaceful emptiness that bedevils the characters in Three Sisters.

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