Chekhov, writing at the turn of the century, captured the pessimism and longing of his era. His play is a sketch of varying moods, often wrapped in mundane situations. His characters are prone to gossipy small talk about a girlfriend's bad sense of style, for instance, before pedantically questioning the meaning of life.
There is little in the way of action. Instead, each act is comprised of a series of moments in the lives of its characters: a dinner party, an exchange over brandy, an interrupted conversation between lovers.
Here lies the difficulty of the play: Its moments are ordinary, trite, even boring. So the brilliance of "Three Sisters" has to be teased out in production, which can't afford a hint a melodrama or any wrong note. All actors must be pitch-perfect, balanced internally and against each other.
In other words, this isn't Annie Oakley singing and dancing and shooting up the stage. It's a family of frustrated Russian aristocrats asking whether life, in itself, is sufficient; whether there is reason or logic to human suffering; whether one should put faith in progress. Most theaters are intimidated by such a tall order, and it's to The Pear's credit that they dared take it on.
The demands are heightened by the physical space of The Pear itself, which can barely fit more audience members than actors. This intimacy creates a voyeuristic impression of having dropped in on another's life. Realism — and not theatrics — becomes a necessity.
Meanwhile, the translation by Craig Lucas creates another difficulty. Lucas puts Chekhov's words into colloquial English that strays uncomfortably into modern slang. The mix of contemporary vernacular with formal speech is jarring, and The Pear's actors don't seem to know what to do with it. They might have been better served with the classic translation by Constance Garnett.
Due to these obstacles, a few of the cast members seem uncomfortable in their skins. It's as if they're reciting in a foreign language they don't understand — even when the accent is dead-on, the stresses are all wrong, as though the meaning has escaped them. In a piece that relies on all of its parts, this is problematic.
Similarly, the larger play lacks a steady vision. Some of the cast members act with fervor and intensity, others with theatrical flare, still others with casual ease. The mismatch is disconcerting, particularly in scenes where the whole cast takes the stage.
That said, a few actors stand out: Shannon Stowe as Natasha, the tempestuous redhead; John Hutchinson as Chebutykin, the nihilistic doctor; Andrew Harkins as Vershinin, the love-struck major.
In a different production, perhaps, these performances might have garnered standing ovations, but here they glow and fade. If the play disappoints, it's because it's uneven, and because some of its richest insights are lost in translation.
From "Three Sisters," translated by Constance Garnett
TUZENBAKH: In a million years life will be just the same; it doesn't change, it remains stationary, following its own laws which we have nothing to do with or which, anyway, we'll never find out. Migratory birds, cranes for instance, fly backwards and forwards, and whatever ideas, great or small, stray through their minds, they'll still go on flying just the same without knowing where or why ...
MASHA: But still, isn't there a meaning?
TUZENBAKH: Meaning. ... Here it's snowing. What meaning is there in that? [A pause.]
MASHA: I think man ought to have faith or ought to seek a faith, or else his life is empty, empty. ... To live and not to understand why cranes fly; why children are born; why there are stars in the sky. ...You've got to know what you're living for or else it's all nonsense.
What: Pear Avenue Theatre presents "Three Sisters," a play written by Anton Chekhov and translated by Craig Lucas
When: Through Sept. 30, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where: The Pear Avenue Theater, 1220 Pear Ave., Mountain View
Tickets: $25 general admission and $20 for seniors and students on Friday and Saturday; $20 general admission and $15 for seniors and students on Thursday and Sunday
Info: Call the theater at (650) 254-1148, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thepear.org