"There is no more beautiful modern play," said critic Eric Bentley of "The Three Sisters," written by Anton Chekhov in the first year of the 20th Century. As in many modern works, the beauty of life eludes the characters, seeming always to lie in the past or in the future. A wonder of complexity and subtlety, "The Three Sisters" also has something of the epic quality of the great modernist poems of Pound and Eliot, shifting focus among many characters and moods.
In the production now at A Noise Within in Glendale, a surprising character comes to the fore: Kulygin, the pedantic schoolteacher who loves Latin almost as much as he loves his beautiful Masha, the wife who repays him by making him a cuckold.
In Preston Maybank's performance, Kulygin has large hands that he uses as if they were delicate and a lugubrious voice with which he caresses his Latin and his stiff phrasing. His sad, heavy-lidded eyes suggest he knows that others might find him foolish. That knowledge doesn't deter him from finding dignity in passionately loving what he loves.
As Masha's lover, Joel Swetow offers only a bland Vershinin, which helps to make Kulygin's plight, and his sensitivity to Masha, even more sympathetic. The play is not thrown off balance, but adjusts to inconsistencies in the cast.
As Masha, the most strong-willed of the sisters, Jenna Cole has an interesting chameleon quality. Her face grows longer and almost unattractive when she is near her husband. Standing by Vershinin, she often looks quite beautiful.
Betsy Ferguson does well with the harridan Natasha, who marries into the sisters' family and systematically destroys it. Natasha is the harbinger of all of the crassness of the newborn century. She represents the most depressing kind of social Darwinism; she wins out by being the rudest, the pushiest and the most selfish.
Costumer Amy DiLamarra delineates Natasha's frightening growth from a nervous country girl in an all-wrong pink satin dress to the model of a fashionable but still flirtatious matron. By contrast, the three sisters seem to grow shabbier in Natasha's ascendancy.
As the schoolteacher sister, Deborah Strang tends to over-telegraph Olga's insecurities, but she has her more delicate moments. Jill Hill grows in her role as the youngest, Irina. Beginning on a simpering note, she matures from a flibbertigibbet who, like her sisters pines aimlessly for Moscow, into a complex young woman.
Eric David Johnson is likable and straightforward as Irina's suitor Tusenbach. Robert Pescovitz plays Tusenbach's rival, Solyony. Pescovitz is properly menacing, particularly when, stealing a moment out of "Hamlet," he pours some scent from a bottle into the ear of a sleeping Tusenbach.
As Andrei, brother to the sisters, Donald Sage Mackay looks a bit like a disheveled Christopher Durang, and is effectively ineffectual. Geoff Elliot and Julia Rodriguez Elliott both direct. One can only guess how the presence of two directors influences the inconsistent performances. The smooth translation is by Allen Fletcher.
In some ways the production lacks subtlety. The lighting seems unspecific; rather than creating interiors and exteriors it merely gets darker or lighter. The phoniness of the men's facial hair (Chebutykin's Smith Brothers beard, Kulygin's handlebar mustache, Tusenbach's heavy eyebrows) stand out in the small space. Also, Norman Henry Mamey's original score is both too contemporary and too insipid for the play.
Despite its flaws, A Noise Within offers a credible depiction of the dilemma of Chekhov's time and all time--the beautifully elusive nature of happiness. Never mind that here that dilemma belongs mainly to a schoolteacher, and he doesn't even want to go to Moscow.
* "The Three Sisters," A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (818) 546-1924. Friday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. In repertory: April 13, 20, 29, May 5, 11, 13, 18, 20, 8 p.m.; April 16, 23, 7 p.m.; April 30, May 6, 2 p.m. Ends May 20. $17-$19. Running time: three hours.