There’s a scene in Richard Nelson’s “Sorry,’’ now at Stoneham Theatre, when a family ponders whether it’s time to sell their home in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and move to the big city. With mock-theatricality, one of the family’s three sisters says: “To New York! To New York!’’
It’s an allusion, of course, to Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,’’ in which variations on the refrain “To Moscow!’’ register as a kind of ongoing prayer by the siblings of the title, their expression of fervent hope for the future and of yearning for the unrecoverable past.
Chekhov’s fingerprints are not hard to find in contemporary American theater. His influence extends far, wide, and deep; indeed, some of the best American playwrights — Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl, Tracy Letts, Craig Lucas — have paid direct homage to the great Russian dramatist by crafting adaptations or translations of his work.
But there’s obviously something special about seeing that work performed in his native tongue, albeit with English surtitles, featuring actors who speak the words as Chekhov wrote them and shaped by directors who presumably feel a connection to his sensibility. It does feel as if we are inside Chekhov’s world and hearing his voice, dramatically speaking, in the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg’s somber and compelling production of “Three Sisters,’’ directed by Lev Dodin and presented by ArtsEmerson at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. That quality of authenticity and spiritual kinship with the author helps to carry the production past some patches of overripe melodrama.
Dodin, the Maly Drama Theatre’s artistic director, writes in a program note of “the universal language of loss,’’ adding, in a marvelous phrase: “We understand the stern tone in which life speaks to us. . .’’ His production, which runs three-plus hours including an intermission, speaks to the audience in a no less stern tone, up to and including the unsmiling curtain call by Dodin’s talented and committed cast.
Alexander Borovsky’s set is dominated by the façade of an imposing, rough-hewn house in whose empty windows the three Prosorov sisters and their guests often stand or sit. Olga (Irina Tychinina), Masha (Ksenia Rappoport), and Irina (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) speak as if delivering elegies for their own lives, though they also show flashes of resistance against surrender.
As the play opens, it is one year after the death of their father, an army general, and 11 years since the family left Moscow and moved to a provincial town after the father was given command of a brigade. Now the sisters, feeling unfulfilled and trapped, speak longingly of selling the house and returning to Moscow. But that dream will be greatly complicated by the fecklessness of their brother, Andrey (Alexander Bikovsky), a gambler married to the manipulative and faithless Natasha (Ekaterina Kleopina).
Irina, who initially puts her faith in work as the antidote to meaninglessness, is being wooed by two very different men, and they are on a deadly collision course: the courtly Baron Tuzenbach (Oleg Ryazanzev) and the fiercely jealous Captain Soleni, played by Stanislav Nikolskiy with a vein-popping intensity that is borderline risible. In a departure from Chekhov’s text, Irina impulsively and passionately kisses the unappealing Soleni at one point, a sign of her determination to push, somehow, against the constraints of her arid life. A similar impetus drives Masha, unhappily married to a clueless high school teacher (Sergey Vlasov), to fall in love with the married lieutenant colonel Vershinin (Igor Chernevich).
It is Vershinin who invokes the future in “Three Sisters’’ as a palliative against the ordeals of the present, proclaiming: “In two or three hundred years, life on earth will be unimaginably beautiful, marvelous. Man needs such a life, and, though he hasn’t got it yet, he must have a presentiment of it, expect it, dream of it, prepare for it . . .’’ Director Dodin often positions his cast so that they face the audience rather than one another, as if they are addressing the posterity of which Vershinin speaks.
But the future seems none too bright when Boyarskaya’s Irina utters the words “To Moscow!’’ at the end of Act 2. She does so three times: first as an anguished cry, then as a broken whisper, and finally as another cry from which all hope seems to have been drained.
Play by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Lev Dodin. Production by Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Cutler Majestic Theatre, through March 6. Tickets $25-$85, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.