Chicago Culture Vulture

devouring theatre, film, and food

The Summer of Our Discontent: “The Three Sisters” at Steppenwolf


A comfortable schoolteacher, an angst-ridden housewife, and an idealistic teenager walk into a house. What sounds like the set-up for a terrible joke is a roll call for the titular characters in one of Chekhov’s most produced plays. “The Three Sisters,” currently enjoying a nearly pitch-perfect incarnation at Steppenwolf, chronicles three Russian siblings and a cast of connected characters who come and go but never really go anywhere.

In a small town during wartime, members of the family mourn their past (a fallen patriarch), contemplate their present, and dream of a future in Moscow. The distant city is promised land of vodka and honey, but it remains a dream as characters realize they will never reach it and must find other meaning in their lives. Chekhov, a subtext slut, challenges actors with his naturalistic language, and the Steppenwolf ensemble attacks the text to bring out new meaning. Veterans and newcomers alike revel in his bluntly stated questions about life, love, and happiness.

The set contributes to the haziness of answers to these questions. A 40×15 foot frame hangs above the stage, blurring the suspended doll house estate. Combined with the proscenium, the frame allows the audience to remain disconnected from the characters and their existential questions. We watch like gods listening to their creations scream for answers, and remains silent for reasons of etiquette, or perhaps ignorance.

After the curtain call, I emerged onto Halsted with thoughts of death, betrayal, and the fear that being equally in love with someone is as much a fiction as a fairy tale. Then I realized it was 70 and sunny and went to the beach. As brilliant and moving as Steppenwolf’s “The Three Sisters” may be, brooding angst and life-ponderind questions aren’t well suited for swimsuits and sunshine. Chekhov is a winter writer.

Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” is checked in to the Steppenwolf through August 26. For more information, visit


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This entry was posted on July 28, 2012 by in Theatre Review.
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