Williamstown’s ‘Three Sisters’ stays true to Chekhov and his time

Michael Greif has built an impressive résumé in his two decades of work in the theater, but even a p

Michael Greif has built an impressive résumé in his two decades of work in the theater, but even a person with his directorial credentials realizes you don’t want to mess too much with a master like Anton Chekhov.

A two-time Tony Award nominee for “Rent” in 1996 and “Grey Gardens” in 2007, Greif is directing the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” this summer, and he has no intention of trying to change the play’s setting or update the material. Some things are better left alone.

“We’re keeping it set vaguely around the turn of the 20th century, and I feel like the mores of the play are connected to that time,” said Greif, whose cast includes recent Theater World Award winner Cassie Beck. “I have enormously enjoyed and appreciated productions that have time-traveled Chekhov, but I think there’s something wonderful about examining the play in its own time.”

‘Three Sisters’

WHERE: Main Stage, ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown Theatre Festival, 1000 Main St., Williamstown, Mass.

WHEN: From Wednesday to July 27. Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and 8 p.m. Tuesdays.

HOW MUCH: $60-$45

MORE INFO: (413) 597-3400 or www.wtfestival.org

The play, which opens Wednesday night and runs through July 27, is about three sisters living in rural Russia who all dream of a more exciting future in Moscow. Chekhov wrote the play in 1900, and it is considered one of his best works along with “The Cherry Orchard,” which Greif directed at Williamstown four years ago.

“I’m certainly not looking at how to make this play my own,” said Greif. “I feel this whole process is a great combination of letting the material speak for itself, and then how do you guide a company toward making the deepest, the funniest, and the most alive version of the play that you can. My job is making sure we all work together to make it fresh.”

Working quickly

Greif’s cast had less than three full weeks to rehearse, but that’s all part of the allure of Williamstown and the Berkshires during the summer.

“Williamstown has a wonderful reputation, and there’s something about the concentration and the time commitment that works out very well,” said Greif. “You gather spectacular people who know they’re going to be working in a wonderful production, and you get to do it all in five weeks. That turns out very well for people’s lives and their other jobs.”

While Greif has directed eight prior productions at Williamstown, the experience is a first for Beck. The daughter of a military man, Beck grew up all over the country, with the exception of the Northeast, and ended up in San Francisco, where she serves as co-artistic director for a theater company with her husband, Kent Nicholson.

“To be able to do a Chekhov play and to do it here in Williamstown is an actor’s dream,” said Beck, whose performance in the off-Broadway hit “Drunken City” this spring earned her the Theatre World Award for Best New York Debut. “I’ve studied this play in school but I’ve never done a complete production. I consider myself an actor, and therefore I have to be a Chekhov fan. His plays are so layered and yet so simple. That’s the beauty of his writing.”

Like Greif, Beck says the short and intense rehearsal period produces the best Chekhov production.

“I think it’s great to be in a pressure cooker because the play demands it in a certain way,” said Beck. “Being up here, you’re not distracted with the other things in your life, and I just feel like I’m learning and absorbing so much more than I would normally. Working here at Williamstown, I feel like I’m in a master class. It’s been a wonderful experience.”

Part of that experience has been working with felllow actress Jessica Hecht. Hecht had a recurring role on the television show “Friends,” as Susan, the lesbian life partner of Ross’ ex-wife, and was also in the 2004 movie hit “Sideways,” with Paul Giamatti, as well as the 2007 release “Dan in Real Life” with Steve Carell.

“I have a scene with Jessica that I really love, and it’s been so much fun working with her,” said Beck. “She really is a force of nature. I’ve been following her all around the stage trying to absorb as much as I can.”

When Greif isn’t working on a play himself, he enjoys going to the theater to see other people’s work. One such visit to the theater this April provided him the opportunity to see Beck in “Drunken City,” a story about a group of friends getting together for a night out before one of them gets married. Beck’s performance convinced Greif she’d be perfect for the part of Natasha, who is not one of the three sisters, but rather the love interest of their brother.

“I wanted someone with a youthful presence, and I wanted Natasha to be someone that everybody could fall in love with,” said Greif. “There’s a danger in the play of her character just being the bad guy. Well, before she’s the bad guy, she’s a promise, and I wanted to make sure we had a very lovable person in that role. I saw that in Cassie.”

The critics loved Beck’s performance in “Drunken City,” written by Adam Bock.

“I worked with Adam in San Francisco before, and he asked me to do a workshop of his new play,” said Beck. “Then he asked me to go to New York, and fortunately Michael Greif was at opening night. We talked and I got an audition for Williamstown and then some other things happened and I was able to get more work. When I got back to California after this whirlwind of activity, I was settling back to normal and thinking to myself, ‘Maybe New York was just a dream?’ Then I got a phone call from Adam all excited telling me I won a Theatre World Award.”

Beck, laughing, confessed that her first reaction was, “What exactly is a Theatre World Award.”

“He told me all about it and I was very honored to say the least,” said Beck. “He said that everybody else who won a Theatre World Award this year also won a Tony. So I can feel pretty good about it.”

Although she still calls San Francisco home, Beck is going to return to New York when her Williamstown gig ends and look for stage work.

Great gift

Greif, meanwhile, has a number of things on his plate, but is mostly looking forward to directing a national touring production of “Rent” beginning in January. Back in 1996, at the final dress rehearsal for the off-Broadway production of “Rent,” also directed by Greif, the playwright, Jonathan Larson, died of an aortic aneurysm.

“That show changed my life in many wonderful ways and really stretched me as a human being,” said Greif. “To experience that dichotomy between the enormous joy over the success of the show, and then the enormous sorrow at the tragedy of losing Jonathan. I felt so lucky to be a part of it, and it was also heartbreaking. But he gave us a great gift.”

“Grey Gardens,” a musical about the mother-daughter relationship of the Beales, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy, earned Greif his second Tony nomination for directing. While his best work may involve directing more contemporary plays, Greif said he wouldn’t think of turning his back on Chekhov or any other classic playwright.

“I love the rigor of working on new plays, when half of the challenge is taking care of what’s there, and the other half is imagining what could be there,” said Greif. “But working with Chekhov is very liberating. I love going back and forth between the classics and contemporary plays.”

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