Eleanor Reissa, Amy Aquino and Betsy Brandt in The Sisters Rosensweig.
Sara, Gorgeous and Pfeni, Wendy Wasserstein’s three sisters in The Sisters Rosensweig, shared the same parents and a Brooklyn upbringing; but like sisters in any family, they are each as unique as one could find in a play or in life.
In 1991, the oldest, Sara, is a much married mid-50s matron and mother to teenage daughter Tess. A hugely successful international banker running HSBC’s Euro division, she’s recovering from surgery for “female trouble,” which caused her to miss her mother’s funeral in New York.
Middle sister Gorgeous, irrepressible and traditionally observant, has the dream life of the Me Decade Flatbush Female: lawyer husband, two children, active in the greater Boston Jewish community, and a radio call-in advice counselor.
Baby sister Pfeni, a writer now 40, has recently given up reporting on international crises in favor of travel writing: Delhi by day, Bombay by night. All three have reunited at Sara’s tony Queen Anne’s Gate address in London in celebration of Sara’s birthday.
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While Shakespeare might have written the original three sisters play (King Lear: Goneril, Regan and Cordelia), that play was a tragedy focused on their living father. Anton Chekhov in 1900 turned from tragedy to what he called comedy in his masterpiece, The Three Sisters.
Chekhov had read a biography of the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) and their ne’er-do-well would-be artist brother Branwell. The sisters lived in a Yorkshire country village and were talented writers (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights)—and they all died relatively young.
From the Brontë’s paradigm, Chekhov created the Prozorovs—Olga, Masha and Irina—three Russian not-yet-30 sisters whose late father had been a prominent general in Moscow. But when we meet them and their hapless brother, Andrei, on Irina’s birthday, they are living in a country peasant community, longing for the glamorous life they knew as children.
Chekhov called his play a comedy, though Stanislavski famously disagreed. When Chekhov’s work was brought to the American mainstream, especially with the Actors Studio’s production in the early 1960s, The Three Sisters seemed ultra-tragic to American sensibilities.
Olga, the eldest, remained an unmarried spinster educator. Middle sister Masha, who married her schoolmaster too young at 18, has a passionate, restorative affair with the dashing Colonel Vershinin, an army officer married to a neurotic wife. Vershinin ships out, leaving Masha with the husband she does not love. When the youngest, Irina, worn down by work and time, finally relents and agrees to marry the idealist Baron Tusenbach whom she does not love, he is killed in a duel.
Chekhov saw these events as devastating and ruefully, brutally funny in equal parts. Americans, more sentimental and idealistic than the Russian writer-doctor dying of tuberculosis, see life differently.
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Jennifer Lyon, Kate Rylie and Blair Sams in the 2010 South Coast Repertory production of Crimes of the Heart.
Seventeen years after the landmark Actors Studio production of Chekhov’s play, Beth Henley gave American audiences Crimes of the Heart, a three-sisters comedy set in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. Henley’s Magrath sisters, as young as Chekhov’s, gather on another birthday in the home of the family’s late patriarch to collectively work out the individual messes their lives have become.
The oldest, Lenny, faces spinsterhood and life with a shrunken ovary; Meg has returned broke from Los Angeles, where her rumored success as a singer actually never happened; and Babe, who gutshot her abusive husband because she “didn’t like his looks,” might not be given the benefit of the doubt by a judge or jury when her husband tells of her affair with a neighborhood African-American boy. The sisterhood they find on Lenny’s birthday carries them through.
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Melanie Lora, Andrea Syglowski and Kat Foster in South Coast Repertory's 2015 world premiere production of Of Good Stock.
In 2015, Melissa Ross premiered her Of Good Stock at SCR, a play that went on to a production in New York the following season. Oldest sister Jess battles disease in her body and disintegration in her personal relationships; middle sis Amy has become a style-conscious bridezilla as her 35th birthday races her impending marriage; and baby sis Celia balances her rep as the family screw-up with her wicked sense of humor and ability to deal with and heal her sisters’ foibles.
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The three sisters construct has worked well in film, too: Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Ingmar Bergman’s classic Cries and Whispers (1972) are but two examples. The former won three Oscars, the latter an Oscar and a nomination for Best Picture, a rare such nod to a foreign film. Henley’s play won the Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Award nominations, while Wasserstein’s won the Best Play from the New York Drama Critics and five Tony Award nominations.
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