Role Playing: Lindsey Gavel’s distressed Masha, in ‘Three Sisters,’ began with a touch of cheer
Interview: In The Hypocrites’ potent take on Chekhov’s emotionally charged play, the actress sought a lighter aspect for a wife desperate for a taste of love. Show continues at The Den through June 6.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Lindsey Gavel knew, heading into her performance as Chekhov’s unhappily married Masha in “Three Sisters” with The Hypocrites, that sorrow-on-sleeve was not the way she wanted to go with it. She decided instead to put a happy face on Masha’s heavy heart – and created a nuanced portrait of a woman caught between her longing for real love and the empty reality of her life.
“Masha always seems to be played as obviously depressed, someone who holds it all in and has this face she puts on,” says Gavel. “It’s much more interesting to think of her as a woman trying to make the best of it and have the best time possible, and just failing miserably.”
In Chekhov’s play, Masha, age 23 when the curtain rises, is the middle sister among three women who once lived in Moscow but now endure a monotonous existence in the countryside. She is married to a school teacher whom she greatly admired as a girl, only to discover that he’s not especially remarkable after all.
Her older sister Olga, 28, a school teacher, and the younger Irina, 20, a bored girl pining for Moscow, live with their brother Andrei and, soon, his new wife Natasha, a once-demure and awkward country lass who suddenly morphs into the haughty ruler of the household. Their only regular connection to the outside world are the military officers, old friends of their late father, who often visit. The commander, Vershinin, a worldly philosopher and striking figure of a man, catches Masha’s eye and, as it were, returns the glance: And thus is sewn the seed of Masha’s hope, and her ultimate heartbreak.
It was in conversations with director Geoff Button, says Gavel, that she settled on what they both saw as a fresh approach to melancholy Masha.
“I had some preconceived notions about her,” says the actor. “The way she reads on the page, she doesn’t come across as a very warm person or someone who’s likely to laugh much. But Geoff and I agreed that she doesn’t need to be wearing her heart on her sleeve. She’s not a tight-lipped, sad, dark woman. We tried really hard to make it honest, to make her vulnerable. We both felt she should be trying to have a good time. And there are ways into that, especially in scenes when the family is together.
“I love the dinner scene in Act I when everyone’s at the table, and the tea party in Act II. A bunch of people getting together like that gives you a wonderful opportunity to explore relationships. There’s so much life in those scenes, so much going on. As an actor, you’re forced to be engaged at all times – especially in a production like this that’s done in the round.”
To heighten the cast’s mutual awareness, the director assigned what Gavels calls “little projects” each night: “One night it was finding moments of vulnerability, treating the room as if it were dangerous to speak out loud. Another project was simply to have a good time being with each other at dinner. The big group scenes are always great fun for me.”
Yet the inescapable truth is that Masha is stuck in an unhappy marriage to a middle-aged teacher (played by D’Wayne Taylor) who simply doesn’t light her fire. Only when Vershinin (Vance Smith) enters the picture does Masha feel her first impulse ever of raw passion. But Vershinin is also snared in a difficult marriage.
“She doesn’t know quite how to react,” says Gavel. “The cast talked about Masha’s relationship with Vershinin and the fact that no one tries to stop it, though they all see it. I think they’re all fascinated by this passion. As Olga (Mary Williamson) tells Irina (Hilary Williams), no one marries for love – you marry out of duty. Love is almost a crazy idea.”
About three years elapse over the course of the play, during which the heat between Masha and Vershinin only rises. Anyone who has ever seen “Three Sisters” surely comes away with the same question, and probably a personal answer: Is their ardor consummated?
“Geoff and I talked about that, too,” says Gavel, “and we agreed that it’s not so much whether but when. There’s a spark in Act I, but the turning point comes in Act II, when Vershinin tells Masha he loves her. At that point the game is over. Somewhere between Act II and Act III, a space of a year and a half, they become lovers.”
Masha’s romantic idyll turns to bitter dust, however, when Vershinin’s company gets orders to relocate, far away. The farewell scene between the distraught woman and the officer is an emotional cataclysm. Faced with the loss of her lover and a return to the bleakness of real life, Masha collapses in Vershinin’s arms, sobbing.
“It’s devastating,” says Gavel, “and it took a while for me to get to that emotional pitch. In early rehearsals, Geoff kept assuring me that no one expected me to reach that intensity until I actually had the weight of the show behind it. You need that sense of time span, and it was only after we began doing full runs that I could get there. It’s a very tough scene and sometimes it hits me a little harder personally than other times. I can’t tell you why.
“But the final scene (immediately upon Masha’s collapse) is challenging as well, when the three sisters are together and trying to put a good face on a situation that’s hard for each of them. They are laughing through tears. Masha realizes that with Vershinin gone, there is nothing else for her. She is right back where she started.”
- Review of ‘Three Sisters’: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
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