Anton Chekhov's darkly complex "Three Sisters" requires a delicate touch. Its pathos can overwhelm, and its humor can become caricature if the two qualities get out of balance. But Jack Wright, who's directing University Theatre's production of the play, keeps a tight hold on its complicated emotions, allowing his actors to explore these intense characters as real people descending into despair.
The intellectually idealistic Prozorov sisters and brother Andrey (Brady Blevins) live in a large, provincial Russian town. The Prozorovs live with the desperate hope of returning to Moscow, a place which to them represents beauty, intellectualism and promise. Their home is a gathering place for military officers with whom they have an affinity, the family and officers drawn together by their mutual sense of dislocation.
Wright's casting is on the money. Each actor brings empathy to his or her role, and details of characters are painstakingly painted in, from gesture to vocal mannerism to physicality. Movement coach Leslie Bennett has carefully guided the performers in the ways and manners of this upper-class Victorian family, allowing them to imbue their bodies with personality.
Long-suffering Olga (Dianne-Yvette Cook) maintains a cheerful, optimistic sense of duty as she struggles with the drudgery of reading student work. Cook's sensitive Olga is the family's rock, whose own insecurities eventually wear her down.
Masha (Julie Damore) - the perennially depressed sister-in-black - is a difficult character. She seems like a whiner, always dreaming of what she doesn't have, but Damore manages her, giving her a sympathetic aura, especially as we see her struggle with her love for Vershinin (Carter Royce Waite).
Irina's (Hilary Kelman) manic optimism tinged with desperation infects her whole body, as she rushes around the stage during Act I. Then Kelman slows her down, infusing her with the growing oppression of her circumstances, until by Act IV, five years of maturity sit on her like 50 years.
Blevins' Andrey is a picture of pathetic resignation, sinking lower and lower into the sea of bourgeois mediocrity. As his garish, vulgar wife Natasha, Blake Bolen obviously relishes her role as a schemer whose inexorable presence slowly drives the sensitive Prozorovs from their home.
Waite's Vershinin is able to let go of the character's Act I pomposity, offering up a man troubled in mind and soul, trapped by his sense of duty. Jonathan Matteson also reveals dimensions in his portrayal of Tusenbach, whose loquacity masks his sentimentality.
As the troubled Solyony, Justin Knudsen manages a difficult task. Solyony glides through the play, first dispensing pessimistic bon mots, but then escalating to threats and murder, and Matthew Crooks' pedantic Kulygin is amusing without becoming a buffoon.
Secondary characters Fedotik (Jordy Altman), Roddey (Brian Ervin), Anfisa (Monica Huff), Ferapont (Alex Haynes) and Sonya (Cali Gilman) sometimes threaten to steal the show, so completely are they realized, but it is Adam Burnett's spectacular, nihilistic Chebutykin who anchors the performances here.
Delores Ringer's costumes are intricately beautiful, and her scenic design maintains an allegiance to Chekhov's own instruction while making use of the Inge's intimate space; Mark Reaney's lighting design fills in the seasons, allowing us to travel with the Prosorovs through the collapse of their lives.