'Three Sisters': A new take on Chekov at Living Room Theatre

Kirk Jackson and Oona Roche rehearsing for The Living Room Theatre's production of "Three Sisters."

NORTH BENNINGTON, Vt. - In the realm of professional summer theater, the sense that big things come in small packages is perhaps expressed no better than in the productions of Living Room Theatre in North Bennington.

Now in their seventh season, New York-based LRT co-founder and artistic director Randolyn Zinn and her husband, actor and director Allen McCullough, have staged the company's shows in southwest Vermont.

The plays are performed on the grounds of the historic Park-McCullough House in the carriage barn, also known to locals as "The Barn." The couple own a farmhouse on the estate, as McCullough is a direct descendant of the eponymous former owners of the grand Victorian mansion museum.

This summer, LRT has modified its typical two-show slate to one, choosing to go big, according to Zinn. Opening Aug. 2 and running through Aug, 18, LRT will tackle the challenges of a new play, presenting the U.S. premiere of Irish playwright Lucy Caldwell's "Three Sisters," a modern version of Anton Chekov's masterpiece by the same name.

The show will be directed by LRT founding member Christopher McCann, and produced by Zinn.

"`Three Sisters' has been on LRT's top 10 list for seven years," Zinn said, in an apparent nod to the many Chekov works staged by LRT. "I was so excited when I read Caldwell's version, and I imagined it staged in the Barn."

Zinn said Caldwell's version takes the Chekov tale of tumultuous Russia in the early 1900s and moves it to 1990s Ireland in the conflicts and ceasefires during the Troubles, as the period is known, when the British military occupied Northern Ireland.

Three sisters, Orla, Marianne and Erin, dream of escaping their tedious suburban lives for a fresh start in America. It's Erin's 18th birthday and, as the sun shines and guests assemble, everything for a fleeting moment feels possible.

To add another twist, Chinese immigrants flood into Ireland at this time as Hong Kong is about to be handed over from British rule to China. In the middle of this maelstrom, people still live their daily lives during political upheaval and dream and hope and get through the day as best they can.

The play opened at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast in Oct. 2016.

"I passed the script to Allen [McCullough] and he loved it too," Zinn said. "Lucy [Caldwell] dropped two characters, so that made the production more doable. I wanted Chris McCann to direct as he's of Irish heritage, and, happily, he said yes."

Director McCann is a founding member of the company, who has acted in all of LRT's Chekhovs, and last year directed Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation." Zinn added that he is familiar with how the Barn has been used in past productions, and brings "a fresh eye to its possibilities, that is very exciting."

McCann emphasized that Caldwell's play was not just a simple rewrite of Chekov.

"Though these different circumstances inform the actors, and ultimately audiences, in substantial ways, `Three Sisters' is not about the time and locale," McCann said. "Rather, it's about the people within the time and locale hoping to live normal lives, with expectations that change and dreams that go unrealized,"

The play will be in four acts, McCann continued, with the audience moving to a new location inside the vast Barn after each act. The director had hoped to do an act outdoors, but the only act suited as such was the fourth and final one.

"However, by that time it would be dark," McCann said. "After several experiments, including lighting the back deck of the barn with our cars' headlights, we simply did not have the means to light the play outdoors, at night, and give the called-for value and specificity to its final events."

The show, which will run about 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, features a sizeable international cast, including local favorites Kirk Jackson and Oliver Wadsworth. Along with McCullough, also appearing are Xingrong Chen, Hannah Beck, Kario Marcel, and returning actors Monique Vukovic, Oona Roche, Jay Reum, Matt Dallal, Chase McCloud, along with founding member Michael McCloud.

As LRT tradition dictates, Zinn and McCullough house most of the actors on the premises, with the centerpiece of rehearsals and the play's run being the three daily communal meals they share, eating fresh, organic produce grown on the property and locally, the latter which are graciously donated by neighbors who are longtime LRT supporters.

At the farmhouse, while surveying the cast and crew al fresco dinner following the first day of rehearsals, McCullough wrapped up his hope for another successful LRT season, directly addressing the story's original playwright.

"I'm always impressed by how timeless and prescient Chekhov's work is," McCullough said in front of the first vestiges of sunset. "He's saying that the human drama of hope and need is the same in every epoch, every country and every soul."