A role for the ages

Actress, 32, brings experience, if not lots of years, to a plum part in Chekhov's `The Three Sisters'

September 21, 2006|By Brooke Nevils | Brooke Nevils,Sun reporter

It takes a real woman to play The Woman in Black.

As director Irene Lewis set out to cast the formidable role of Masha in Center Stage's production of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, she knew that the authenticity the role requires would be hard to find.

"Chekhov is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century," she says. "His work is highly dense - and Masha was written for Chekhov's wife, so it's a revered role."

Masha, the middle of the play's three sisters, is one of the most coveted parts in all of theater. The play opens with Masha dressed entirely in black and at a point of crisis: trapped in a loveless marriage and a suffocating small town, her reality is a far cry from the dreams she once had.

"Masha is usually played by women who are older, because they have the life experience and the chops required," Lewis says. "But I said, let's look at the age Chekhov specifies."

The combination of classical training and emotional maturity that the role of Masha demands is uncommon in young actresses, but Lewis saw it immediately in Christine Marie Brown, a native of Columbia and an alumna of the University of Maryland.

Only 32, Brown is considered young to tackle such a meaty role, but Lewis felt that "Christine has a natural feel for Masha - she sounded more authentic to me."

After graduate school at the Old Globe in San Diego and a role in Lincoln Center's Tony Award-winning revival of Henry IV, Brown has the classical training required for the poise and emotional complexity that the role demands - but that's not what she feels is important.

"I have such a great respect for Chekhov and for this role, and there is a certain level of responsibility with it," Brown says. "But I don't know that youth is necessarily a disadvantage."

Brown - like most young people - says she knows what it's like to be in a relationship that isn't working and can relate to the feeling of being trapped.

"I have to go for the emotional truth of her life in her circumstances," Brown says. "In the 19th century, if you left your husband, you would have nothing. The consequences are dire, much more than for us."

When Vershinin, played by fellow Columbia native David Adkins, arrives in the provincial garrison town, Masha falls in love for the first time in her life - an attraction Lewis describes as "a tidal wave" that throws Masha's existence into turmoil.

"I hope that the audience will have some recognition of themselves, whether it's the marriage they can't escape or being trapped by gender or money or time," she says.

And though Brown can relate to those feelings of entrapment, she says she doesn't feel trapped by the expectations that accompany such a pivotal role in her career.

"I just want to explore the truth of who she is and what she's going through," Brown says, "not just that she's Masha from The Three Sisters."

brooke.nevils@baltsun.com

The Three Sisters runs through Oct. 29 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Times vary. Tickets are $10-$60. Call 410-332-0033 or visit centerstage.org.

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