Finding the modern in Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ at the Seaver

“Three Sisters (Ruhl)” is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals on behalf of Samuel French, Inc. (Wendy Zhang • The Student Life)

“Boring,” “tedious” and “dated” are all adjectives that 5C students in “Three Sisters” have heard classmates apply to Anton Chekhov’s work. Zalia Maya SC ’24, who plays Olga, the eldest of the three sisters, initially had this reaction herself to the Russian play. 

“I came into this process really dubious, thinking that Chekhov would be stuck up,” she said. “But I’ve found that it’s a modern story.”

The 5C production of “Three Sisters,” which opened at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre on Thursday, demonstrates why Chekhov has continued to captivate audiences for more than a century.

“The play is still relevant because its characters and their problems are eternal,” said Larissa Rudova, the Yale B. and Lucille D. Griffith professor of modern languages at Pomona. “They are bluntly sincere and draw us in with their humanity, their confusion, their mistakes and their desire for joy.” 

“Three Sisters,” the third of four productions in “Inevitable Evolutions,” Pomona’s theater department season, delivers a powerful portrait of growing up. Directed by Talya Klein, a visiting assistant professor of theater at Pomona, the play is set in 1850s Russia and follows the story of the Prozorov sisters, who feel trapped in the backwards countryside and long to return to Moscow, Russia’s cultural center. 

Conjuring both past and present, the movable two-story set, designed by guest artist Sarah Krainin, combines the spare architecture of a modern home with antiquated furnishings: an oriental rug, a piano and an oil painting on an easel. Marooned in this timeless domestic space, the Prozorov family members squabble, flirt, betray and love each other and the occasional alluring visitor. Throughout the show, the sisters imagine different futures to little avail, unable to escape their dwindling finances and dreams. 

Arden DeForest PO ’25 plays the soldier Rodé in the play.

“Chekhov is like a little kid listening to an adult party,” DeForest said.

Klein knew that the text alone would not provide actors all the answers they needed, as Chekhov reveals bits and pieces of the plot but not the whole story. She spent ten full rehearsals — a third of the entire process — around a table, having the actors analyze the script to understand the motivations of each character before moving onto staging. When the actors got on their feet, the play took only four days to block, as the movement came more naturally.

“It’s exciting material to work on with acting students in particular because not everything that happens is on the page, and you’re really trying to figure out relationships and subtext,” Klein said. 

These unspoken moments are underscored during set changes when scenes of an engagement, a wedding or pregnancy unfold simultaneously to convey jumps in time. When the Prozorovs have to forfeit their house, the entire family takes apart the set piece by piece, rolling up the carpet and taking down pictures, leaving an almost empty stage.

“The play is still relevant because its characters and their problems are eternal. They are bluntly sincere and draw us in with their humanity, their confusion, their mistakes and their desire for joy.”

“Just watching the transitions, I would literally tear up,” Jazz Zhu PO ’24, the assistant director, said.

Audience members agreed.

“Something that stuck out to me was how fast the scenes changed … I loved when the swing came in and the background switched from dark pink and green to just a bright yellow brick wall in the back,” Rhea Braganza PO ’26 said. 

Despite the dated language and frustratingly static plot, the actors in “Three Sisters” bring contemporary vitality to their roles, drawing on their own quirks and experiences to charm the audience. Emily Cummings PO ’23, whose performance of Masha was part of her theater department senior thesis, is especially strong in this complex role.

The performances arise out of the deep connection many of the actors felt to their characters.

“I have a little sister,” Maya said. “In so many ways, Olga is so me because she lives her whole life for her siblings and for her family.”

Seb Barnhill PZ ’25 saw his character, Andrei Prozorov, as suffering from gifted kid syndrome, an all too familiar experience.

“You get too much praise. And everyone says you’re gonna go on to do great things, and then you just keep on slowing down,” he said. 

Such youthful resonances were behind Klein’s choice of material. 

“This particular Chekhov play is so perfect for college students because it’s about growing up. It’s about first, big disappointments that happen in your life, and then how you pivot basically,” she said. “I feel like if anyone has access to that material, it’s college students and these particular college students who have lived through a global pandemic and who have had college experiences that weren’t what they expected.”

What is the answer to the challenge of growing up?

“More life,” Klein wrote in the director’s note. “Maybe not what we imagined, but something new, unexpected and potentially beyond anything we could have dreamed for ourselves.”

Performances of the “Three Sisters” by Anton Chekhov (translation by Sarah Ruhl) continue at the Seaver Theatre Friday, March 3 at 8 p.m., Saturday March 4 at 2 p.m. (with an ASL interpreter), Saturday, March 4 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 5 at 2 p.m. Ticket information can be found here.

“Three Sisters (Ruhl)” is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals on behalf of Samuel French, Inc. 

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