Derek Gaspar, Caroline Neff and Carrie Coon in “Three Sisters” at the Steppenwolf Theatre Photo by Michael Brosilow

The costumes may reflect an earlier era, but Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” written in 1900, has comfortably found updated language and relatable circumstances thanks to the direction of Evanston’s Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro and a fresh adaptation by Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning ensemble member Tracy Letts.

The play centers around the attempt by Russia’s withering privileged class to find meaning in a world reborn. It is timeless in its ability to push forth every awkward dynamic facing families of today – parents have passed away; the family struggles with their change in fortune. The eldest of three sisters (Olga, played by Ora Jones) minds in motherly fashion; the middle sister (Masha, played by Carrie Coon), married too young, strays from her husband and into the arms of Vershinin (John Judd); and the youngest sister (Irina, played by Caroline Neff) settles for romance with Baron Tusenbach (Derek Gaspar of Wilmette) while yearning for her one true love – Moscow.  Meanwhile the only brother (Andrey, played by Dan Waller) mortgages the family home to pay off his gambling debts; the longtime family friend (Ivan Chebutykin, played by Scott Jaeck of Wilmette) excessively tips the flask in hopes of coming to terms with his love for the girls’ late mother; and everyone talks about the sister-in-law (Natasha, played by Alana Arenas) behind her back. 

“Three Sisters” is like everyone’s worst dysfunctional family holiday, but with corsets and long skirts.  And it works – humor and all.

The stage, managed by Evanston’s Laura Glenn, opens with a monumental framed painting of birch trees and the superimposed Prozorov family estate. Looming throughout most of the play, the backdrop elegantly serves both interior and exterior scenes, seamlessly enabling Ms. Shapiro to govern a seasoned cast that has worked hard to develop difficult characters. Thanks to Mr. Letts’ revised dialogue, frustrated sisters and their counterparts are able to fling modern-day language and even a few four-letter words when they have had enough. American idioms are used frequently and make for a refreshing twist on early Russian literature.

Whether there is in fact a plot is a question that Chekhov fans have debated for more than a century.  “Three Sisters” is more of a weaving of themes and unchanging universal truths.  The characters continue to ponder life’s meaning, noting that it all goes too quickly, and that aging is a challenge – or “Getting old is a drag,” as Vershinin (John Judd) exclaims. “What’s it all about?” That is for the audience to decide. Chekhov reminds the audience of the mysterious agony and grandeur essential to the universal quest for happiness. But happiness, like Moscow, always seems so far away.

Anna D. Shapiro joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble in 2005 and was awarded the 2008 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for “August: Osage County” (Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Broadway, London). She was nominated in 2011 in the same category for “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” (The Public Theater, LAByrinth Theater Company). 

Ms. Shapiro has numerous other directing credits in Chicago, New York and abroad. She is a full professor in Northwestern University’s Department of Theatre and has served as the director of the MFA in Directing program since 2002.

Tickets for and other information about “Three Sisters” are available at steppenwolf.org. The show runs through Aug. 26.