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It’s hard to know what Anton Chekhov would make of MetroStage’s Three Sistahs, the crowd-pleasing R&B musical that premiered there in 2002. But now that it’s back for another run, it’s fun to imagine him sitting in the audience: He’d be the pale, serious-looking dude in the back with the pince-nez and goatee, coughing decorously into a handkerchief.
He probably wouldn’t think twice about most of the changes authors Janet Pryce and Thomas Jones have made to his famously gloom-soaked play; Doctor C. was by all accounts a self-effacing guy, and if you go by his short stories, a pretty funny one too. And as a playwright, he’d appreciate that some adaptations are looser than others.
How loose, then, is Three Sistahs? Pretty damn loose: The setting is Washington in the late ’60s. Following the funeral of their brother, who was killed in Vietnam, three women gather in the soon-to-be-sold familial home to grieve, commiserate, and, yep, clash. There’s oldest sister Olive (Bernardine Mitchell), acerbic Marsha (Crystal Fox), and Irene (Felicia Curry), the youngest and most idealistic of the three.
The actors playing the two older sisters originated the roles five years ago. You can tell: There’s a practiced ease to the way both Mitchell and Fox infuse their delivery with unforced emotion. Their voices slide languidly over the words, layering the dialogue with secondary meaning. It’s not irony, because the ultimate effect isn’t to contradict or subvert the text but to enrich it. You can hear the lives these women have lived, the mistakes they’ve made, in every line.
That level of nuance isn’t something Curry brings to the role of Irene, but to be fair, the script never asks her to. In quieter moments, Curry shows an expressive vulnerability, but there aren’t many of those. Irene spends most of the first act in a state of perpetual clench, singing fiercely to herself about not forgiving things that she can’t forget, wanting to hear sins confessed, and other sentiments of equal opacity.
We don’t learn what any of that’s about until the play’s almost over, which is actually something Chekhov might appreciate. He is, after all, the any-pistol-seen-onstage-in-the-first-act-must-be-fired-in-the-last-act guy. But he’d likely quibble about the play’s decision to make Irene into the pistol, because her anger seems sourceless and undirected. We realize too late that there’s supposed to be a reason behind it.
No one in Three Sistahs stares out frosted windows yearning for Moscow or dithers about keeping the samovar lit. In place of those bits of business (and serving much the same characterizing purpose) are a hell of a lot of original songs. They’re handled well; William Hubbard’s music flows naturally out of dialogue, raises the emotional stakes for a few moments, and subsides. Even showstoppers like “Barely Breathing,” Olive’s lusty paean to the Big O, don’t actually stop the show, because so much care has been taken to keep things moving. Hubbard (who is also the show’s musical director, keyboardist, and, for one brief passage, unseen vocalist) creates a pleasing mix of doo-wop, gospel, and R&B, and his ballads are as free of bombast as it’s reasonable to hope for.
Yeah, Jones’ lyrics can shade a bit purple and sound too indebted to his rhyming dictionary. Take, for example, “It was the last thing said/And how we all bled/From eyes that saw red,” which I think refers to crying. But there’s no denying the power of the bittersweet curtain-raiser “In My Father’s House.” Much of that’s due to the purity of these vocals: Mitchell sings with an astonishing richness, Fox’s slightly huskier tone can express joy and pain simultaneously, and Curry belts with the best of them.
Wherever he’d come down on the show’s music, Chekhov surely couldn’t find fault with Jonathan Williamson’s warm, cherry-wood set of mission furniture and golden light, or Erin Nugent’s crisp period costumes, especially the second act’s luminously colored ’60s gear.
But there’s one thing about Three Sistahs that would definitely leave the good doctor scratching his Vandyke in stupefaction, and that’s the ending, which is all warmth and hugs and uplift. Where, he would demand, rising from his seat and shaking his walking stick in the air, is my soul-sickening despair? What happened to the soured dreams? The weary resignation?
The unsettling Chekhovian stuff, as oldest sister Olive likes to say, “ain’t in it.” Or it’s in it only barely, dialed way back to ensure that the audience goes home wrapped in a cozy glow. This reluctance to provoke is something you sense throughout the evening, and it’s one of the reasons Three Sistahs slips occasionally into a disingenuous slickness.
And yet, if I caught up with Chekhov in the lobby, I’d probably try to get him to lighten up: “Look, Doc,” I’d say. “It’s August in D.C., most theaters are dark, and here’s a well-acted, good-looking show featuring three strong, smart women and filled with crowd-pleasing tunes.” I’d say to him: “Not everything has to end in suicide and despondency, you crazy consumptive Cossack, you.”
Then, just to be a dick, I’d ask him to do the “nuclear wessels” scene from Star Trek IV.