Together, sisters face their shattered dreams

THEATER

Theater Column

January 23, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Stuck in a Russian backwater town, the title characters in Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters yearn to move to Moscow. But what they yearn for is ultimately less important than the act of yearning itself.

Coupled with that yearning is a current of discontent so deep, it's difficult to imagine a mere change of scene making much difference.

As portrayed by Cherie Weinert, Katherine Lyons and Virginia Hess under Barry Feinstein's perceptive direction at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, the sisters share a bond that is almost tangible. When we hear these three laugh together or see them comfort one another, we sense connections that stretch back to the sisters' happy childhood, when their dreams for themselves - not just for future generations - still seemed attainable.

The actresses also do an excellent job differentiating their characters. Weinert's Masha, the middle sister, is married to a man she doesn't love, but she still harbors romantic hopes. She gets a fleeting and ultimately futile chance to fulfill those hopes with married Colonel Vershinin (Mark Steckbeck in a skillfully nuanced performance).

Lyons' Olga is the sensible sister. If her character seems slightly less defeated, it's only because she's more of a realist. And, Hess' young Irina is a combination of her older sisters; she starts out radiant and optimistic, but ends up resigned and pragmatic.

Not all of the performances reach the high level achieved by the leads. Kathleen Taylor is unable to find sympathetic chords in the rather unforgiving role of the shrewish, lower-class sister-in-law. Steve Kovalic also lacks subtlety as her hen-pecked husband, "once the repository of all our aspirations," as his sister Masha puts it.

Feinstein has chosen Irish playwright Brian Friel's 1981 translation for this production. It's a version that contains some peculiar Irish locutions and references (are there "bogs" in Russia?). But the director and cast tread lightly on such oddities, and what comes across instead is the accessibility of the text.

Three Sisters is a play in which, as Olga puts it, "Nothing ever turns out the way we want it to." Producing this monumental work at a community theater is an ambitious undertaking, and at Fell's Point Corner, it turns out to be a largely impressive one.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 16. Tickets are $12. Call 410-276-7837.

A place to call home

After nine itinerant years, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has found a permanent home. The company is converting St. Mary's Church, 3900 Roland Ave., into a 240-seat, thrust-stage theater.

Describing the Hampden church as an ideal locale, Shakespeare Festival artistic director James Kinstle explained, "Our mission is two-fold. It's bifurcated in that we do professional productions and we do educational programs, and since there are so many schools and senior centers within a two-mile radius, it's perfect for us."

The 1856 stone church hasn't had a congregation of its own for more than two years, although for the last six months of 2002 it served as the temporary house of worship for congregants from St. David's Episcopal Church, while that Roland Park church was being renovated.

Renamed "St. Mary's Outreach Center" by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, the building has a mission to serve youth and seniors, so having the Shakespeare Festival in residence "fits in quite well," said Louis Willett, chairman of the Diocese's Property Committee. "We've got quite a few people of the Hampden community very excited about this. It appears to be a win-win situation, and we're hoping for a lasting relationship."

Among Kinstle's plans for the property, on which the theater company holds a three-year lease, is a gardening club for seniors, who will create what he has dubbed "Ophelia's Garden" and "The Friar's Garden."

He hopes to attract young people beginning this summer when the festival will offer a three-week comedy summer camp. Students ages 14-19 will get a chance to study Shakespeare's clowns and create an original commedia dell'arte piece.

Kinstle also announced that the festival is launching its first subscription season. The three-play series will begin in July with an al fresco production of As You Like It in the Evergreen House meadow, followed by two productions at St. Mary's - Othello in October and a one-man Christmas Carol in December. Three-play subscriptions will range from $30 for students to $50 for general admission.

The Shakespeare Festival will have a public, day-long opening celebration, called "May Faire", in its new home on May 17. But there will be at least one activity in the building before that. Artistic associate Lewis Shaw is offering a 15-week course in stage combat beginning Monday.

For more information on any of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's programs, call 410-837-4143.

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