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THEATER REVIEW / 'THREE SISTERS' : Play Never Gets Off the Farm : The ambitious, yet frustrating production exceeds the repertoire of the Westmont College performers.

April 15, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Choosing material for student theatrical productions carries its own unique opportunities and pitfalls. A young cast, unburdened with tradition, can bring fresh, even exhilarating energy to familiar landscapes.

But a time-honored classic can also exceed the repertoire of student performers--especially if it deals with subjects outside their life experiences. And that's unfortunately the case in an ambitious but ultimately frustrating staging by Westmont College of Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters."

Director John H. Cochran (who so effectively guided his celebrity casts through last summer's "Love Letters" at the Lobero Theatre), obviously understands the yearning of Chekhov's trio of heroines for sophistication and refinement beyond the possibilities of life in their agrarian estate in turn-of-the-century Russia.

They dream of moving to Moscow, but circumstances (including their own self-defeating impulses) conspire to keep them back on the farm year after year.

"Our lives have not been beautiful--they've stifled us like weeds in a garden," is how Irina (Ruth Hall) sums it up.

It's a story with great personal resonance for Cochran, who extricated himself from ghetto surroundings to become an accomplished actor and teacher, but saw some of his family and friends unable to make that radical break.

Judging from the performances, however, the issue of entombment in an unfulfilled life holds less reality for a Westmont cast in that stage of life where finality is an abstraction at best. After all, they're going to live forever.

As a result, the sisters' gradual recognition that they will never leave their farm is consistently unconvincing, as are their supposedly naturalistic encounters culled from daily life.

More successful with their more accessible characters are Shani Valencia (the conniving stepsister) and Dana Alexander (the ubiquitous Chekhovian doctor trying in vain to diagnose the human heart).

In general, the boisterous energy is on the right track--there's a great deal of humor in Chekhov that's frequently stifled in dour, ponderous stagings--but it scatters like buckshot in a work that calls for precision targeting.

Period costumes by Lesley Finlayson lend suitable atmosphere, and the impressive set designs by Melissa Rick Cochran project plenty of spatial depth.

But emotional depth is lacking--too often the show plays like a Romper Room production of "King Lear."

What's needed is the life seasoning to supply the understated dignity, compassion and warmth that Chekhov requires to move us.

While undoubtedly a valuable exercise for the cast, a Shakespearean comedy centered on the hotblooded foibles of youth would probably have proved better suited to usher in the rites of spring.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"The Three Sisters." Performed at 8 p.m. today through Saturday at Westmont College's Porter Hall in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $9. For reservations or information, call 565-7040.

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