'Three Sisters' immerses us in Chekhov's world of desire and regret

Invictus manages to capture most of the play’s challenging, dramatic sprawl.

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Katherine Schwartz (from left), Ellie Duffey and Maria Stephens play the siblings in Invictus Theatre Company's production of "Three Sisters."

Katherine Schwartz (from left), Ellie Duffey and Maria Stephens play the siblings in Invictus Theatre Company’s production of “Three Sisters.”

Aaron Reese Boseman Photography

So near and yet so far: The titular siblings of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” yearn to escape the mundane stasis of Russia’s rural provinces for the excitement of Moscow. In Chekhovland, dreams don’t usually come true. So it goes with siblings Masha, Irina and Ólga, whose lives are defined by dreams forever deferred in the playwright’s 1901 drama. Moscow may be in reach within the span of a carriage ride or two, but for Irina, Masha and Olga, it might as well be the moon.

Directed for Invictus Theatre Company by founding artistic director Charles Askenaizer, Chekhov’s three-hour classic (translated by Paul Schmidt) serves a turbulent sea of curdled ambitions lined with slivers of desperate, futile optimism. The latter holds sway when soldiers arrive at the home that Irina (Ellie Duffey), Masha (Katherine Schwartz) and Ólga (Maria Stephens) share with their brother Andrey (Michael B. Woods), a gambling addict.

While Andrey drives the family toward financial ruin, his sisters engage with giddy joy when the troops come calling. In the soldiers, the women see an escape, be it geographical, romantic or simply in the form of gossip from the beloved city they recall from their childhoods.

'Three Sisters'

When: Through July 14

Where: Invictus Theatre at the Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park

Tickets: $25- $35

Info: www.invictustheatreco.com

Run time: Three hours and five minutes, including one intermission

The soldiers are a somewhat interchangeable lot on stage, but Invictus mostly succeeds in creating a world where the very air feels thick with desire and regret, the two inextricably knotted together.

The story is intensely dialogue-driven, save for a blazing metaphor of an off-stage fire and a late-in-the-play off-stage shooting that serves as a violent exclamation point to the sisters’ thwarted longings. The action unfurls in sisters’ home, beginning as they anticipate the soldiers’ arrival and ending several years later, after the dominant forces shaping their lives — marriage, children, jobs and money — shift and settle with grim permanence.

Throughout, the challenging, dramatic sprawl “Three Sisters” encompasses
contains a veritable banquet of angst, joy, wit and existential despair. Invictus captures much of it. And even when it stumbles, Chekhov writes with such forceful acuity and stark beauty it’s easy to simply get lost in the dialogue.

Askenaizer needs to tighten up the pacing significantly. “Three Sisters” feels like it’s playing at half-speed sometimes, usually at the most emotionally fraught moments, as if the audience would miss the full impact of the moment if it weren’t slowed down to a crawl.

The director also needs to rein in some of the excessive emotional pyrotechnics: Duffey has a youthful, flirty charm as Irina, who is a very young 18 at the start of “Three Sisters.” Askenaizer has her sprawling over furniture and rolling on the floor like a toddler hyped up on sugar, delivering her lines with over-the-top exaggeration that turns the character from a naive young woman into a childish simpleton.

Stephens’ Olga captures the character’s warmhearted compassion as well as her resignation to both self-proclaimed spinsterhood and a teaching career she despises. Ólga is 28 when “Three Sisters” starts, but in Stephens’ performance, you can sense the weariness grinding her down: She looks young, but bears the exhaustion of someone far older.

As the unhappily married Másha, Schwartz brings acidic irony to some of the production’s most biting comedic scenes. When Masha embarks on a romance with one of the visiting soldiers, the affair becomes — like the play itself — a portrait of fleeting joy and a portent of life’s inevitable cruelties.

Woods gives the feckless brother Andrey a believable core of incompetence and desperation — both traits that will have a ruinous impact on his sisters.

Finally, there’s Cat Hermes as Natasha, whose gleaming blonde hair, vibrant attire and authoritative delivery establish her as a fox in the proverbial henhouse. Natasha’s ambition is as bold as her jewel-toned clothing (vivid work by costume designer Jessie Gowens). In Hermes’ deceptively comic delivery, Natasha contrasts the sisters in almost every way — including the practical ruthlessness she deploys in order to make her own dreams a reality.

Cat Hermes (with Michael B. Woods) plays Natasha with vibrant attire and authoritative delivery.

Cat Hermes (with Michael B. Woods) plays Natasha with vibrant attire and authoritative delivery.

Aaron Reese Boseman Photography

Set designer Kevin Rolfs has transformed the Windy City Playhouse space into a parlor and dining room of believable 20th century shabby-chic. Tellingly, a fuzz of moss creeps over the furniture, signifying decay and the end of an era.

Askenaizer intersperses the action with lilting acoustic music from guitarist Kevin Cruz and vocalist Ophelia Harkness. The duo creates an auditory ambiance that evokes the spirit of the drama itself: a thicket of love and loss, underscored by the sardonic humor that defines human comedy itself, be it in real life or reflected in Chekhov’s version of it.

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