CHAUTAUQUA - If you plant a lily next to a rose, the fragile, pale, white flower may easily be eclipsed by its showy, red neighbor.
But if you examine each flower separately and carefully, you may just find the lily's lovely purity more moving and more to be treasured than the rose's urgent glamour.
This statement can be an interesting parallel to the pale, fragile writings of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, compared to the more thunderous writings of - say - a Tennessee Williams, or even of Shakespeare himself.
The beautiful, comfortable, and well-equipped Bratton Family Theater, a historic building which has recently been renovated to meet the needs of the Chautauqua Theater Company. It will soon be the site for the company's performances of Anton Chekhov's play “Three Sisters.'
Beginning on Wednesday, and running through July 17, the Chautauqua Theater Company invites you to examine its production of one of Chekhov's finest plays: ''Three Sisters,'' which they will be performing in the Bratton Family Theater. Some performances of the play will be presented as afternoon matinees and others as evening performances, so check a Chautauqua schedule before planning to attend.
When I met with representatives of the CTC, well before the beginning of the present season, I promised to devote this week's column to the Chekhov production. Even when it turned out that the convoluted time schedules which envelop professionals trying to prepare full scale productions while operating a professional training program, all crammed into nine impossibly busy weeks, made the planned interviews with the current performers impossible, I determined to share with you some of the things I know about Chekhov and his play, in the hope that it will whet your appetite to see and experience it for yourself.
Needless to say, there are no car chases in the play - although there is a duel, fought with pistols. But like the lily, if you give it the time and attention it deserves, it may reward you more than you ever dreamed possible.
''This will not be your father's Chekhov,'' promised the company's artistic director, Vivienne Benesch. The tall, graceful blonde actor talks of the production with such energy and such admiration, she leaves her listeners unable to resist the hope of seeing it performed.
Ms. Benesch will be performing as Olga, the oldest of the three sisters of the title.
She suggested that director Brian Mertes would fill the production with music and dancing and all the lively elements for which the stage and television director has become famed for his annual community productions of Chekhov plays, performed at Lake Lucille, New York, a bucolic setting about 40 miles north of New York City.
''Brian has found a way to include everyone who lives in the area in his productions, with actors staying in his neighbors' guest rooms and people volunteering to come in and prepare a meal or two for the entire company,'' she said. ''We can't do that, exactly at Chautauqua, but it seemed like the perfect blend, to mix his vision with our wonderful community.''
I can't tell you precisely how Mertes will shape the play - watch for the review, later this coming week - but I can tell you quite a bit about the play.
Many people who see and know ''Three Sisters'' are surprised to learn that it was written in the year 1900. As with so many writings of Chekhov's, it deals with the passing of the old and archaic aristocracy and the emergence of the brutal common man, to take its place.
The playwright seems to have predicted the replacement of the czar and his autocratic yet aristocratic way of life by the crude and violent Bolsheviks, with remarkable accuracy.
The play takes place in a small garrison town in Russia. The sisters of the title are members of the Prozorov family. They and their only brother, Andrey, grew up in Moscow, where they developed social graces and refinement, but their father's death, about a year before the play begins, has added to their family's swift decline in fortune, to the point that they cannot afford to live in the big city, and they must reside in this place where there is little to do but receive visitors and remember better days.
Olga, at age 28, the oldest sister, earns a meager living as a teacher. She often is forced to do the job of the school's head mistress, but she is desperate not to be appointed to the position on a permanent basis, because she sees the appointment as a sentence which will end any hope of marriage or family.
Masha, the middle sister, is 25 at the rise of the curtain. She married at 18 a colorless man, to avoid her sister's fate, but after seven dull years, she has begun to look to the officers stationed in the community for a more lively way of life than her husband can provide.
Irina, the youngest sister, has the strongest desire to return to Moscow. She is sure that a true love is waiting for her there. As time goes by, though, she begins to ponder the repeated proposals of the local nobleman, although she knows she has no feelings for him.
Trapped in the small town, the women's brother has begun to spend his copious spare time gambling - although he has no talent whatsoever for doing so. Faced with a shortage of female companionship, Andrey has set his attentions on Natasha, an insecure, awkward young common woman. As the play goes on, Natasha gradually learns to what a great degree her husband is under her control, and she becomes a tyrant who dominates her sisters-in-law and the entire household.
Some writers have suggested that Chekhov was inspired to write this play by reading about the lives of the Bronte sisters, English writers and poets whose lives were similarly impacted by their being legally under the control of their only brother whose inability to support them left them stranded in rural isolation.
Anton Chekhov was a medical doctor who wrote in his spare time. In his own turn of phrase, medicine was his legal wife, but literature was his mistress.
Although much of his writing was in the form of short stories, and he is often described as one of the greatest short story writers in history, his name is best known for his creation of four plays: ''The Seagull,'' ''Uncle Vanya,'' ''The Cherry Orchard,'' and ''Three Sisters.''
Because his plays present little conventional action, replacing it by suggestion, mood, and subtext, presenting them has come to be considered very difficult, and many productions of them are unpopular.
We know quite a bit about how he wanted his plays presented, because Chekhov was married to a professional actress, and many letters exist in which she asks questions about the plays, and he answers and makes suggestions of how the characters should be portrayed.
Because his themes are so often wrapped up in poverty, loss, isolation and suicide, it has startled many readers and audience members that he invariably referred to them as comedies.
Throughout his career, Chekhov would insist that the writer's duty is to raise questions with his work, not to answer questions.
The writer was born in a small town in Southern Russia, into a family of six children. His grandfather was a serf - the lowest order of society, not unlike a slave. His father ran a grocery store and directed the choir of the local Orthodox church. His mother was the daughter of a traveling salesman who had spent her youth traveling to all corners of the giant Russian empire.
While his father was severe and physically abusive, his mother filled her children's lives with tales of wonderful places and amazing sights.
When the future writer was only 16 years old, his father declared bankruptcy. Ironically, the result was the exact inverse of the situation in ''Three Sisters.'' The parents moved to Moscow with their two older sons, who were enrolled in the university, to hide from their creditors. Young Chekhov was left behind to try to finish his education and to live by gradually selling off everything the family had owned.
For the next three years, the abandoned young man lived as a boarder in his own former home, boarding with the man who had bought the house. During this time, we now know, the future writer engaged in a number of romantic love affairs, including one with the wife of one of his teachers.
At 19, he won a scholarship to the medical college in Moscow, where he rejoined his family. Three of his comic stories about the life of a poor physician have been molded in recent years into a popular play called ''The Good Doctor.''
Chekhov never made much money from his medical practice, largely because he insisted on treating patients, even when they couldn't pay. Although the many hours he spent making the long trips to visit the sick cost him time he would have rather spent on writing, he would eventually say that those travels had taught him so much about different kinds of people, and the trials and sufferings they faced, that it was worth doing, even beyond the medical benefits to his patients.
Before he turned 30, the writer lost one of his older brothers to tuberculosis. That disease has become central to much of the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries because it often took many years to kill its victims, years during which they knew they were dying, but they could often move around and take part in their usual lives. And, it sometimes seemed to go away, leaving the patient to feel cured, although it often returned and claimed its victim.
Not long after his brother died, Chekhov himself began to show symptoms of the disease.
Until the age of 41, the writer lived the life of a sworn bachelor. That year, he decided to marry a Moscow actress named Olga Knipper, who performed in several productions of his plays. He told his intended that he believed a wife should be part of his life, as the moon was - not appearing every day.
Throughout their marriage, the couple largely lived apart. Olga lived in Moscow, with frequent journeys to other cities for performances, while Chekhov lived in the Black Sea city of Yalta, which is one of the warmest parts of Russia, since warm, dry air was considered helpful for patients of tuberculosis.
In 1904, the couple took a joint journey to a health spa in Germany, in the hope that the quiet atmosphere and mineral baths would be good for his health, but the writer died, at the early age of 44.
In 1917, the communists seized control of Russia. Although much of his writing showed cultured and delicate people being destroyed by greedy and graceless peasants, the communists would produce Chekhov's plays and twist them to demonstrate the heroism of the commoners in overcoming the greed of the rich.
Beginning in the 1950s, with the spread in the U.S. of the style of acting called ''the Method,'' Chekhov's writings began to be performed more frequently in their original forms. Such elements as a woman agreeing to marry a man she clearly doesn't love because she is so desperately unhappy and sees no other possible solution for herself, proved a great challenge for directors such as Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg.
Method actors such as Brando and DeNiro embraced the challenge of writing in which most of the meaning is in what is not said, and their many fans have flocked to performances.
At this point, we can only guess what the Chautauqua Theater Company can do with the play, but I think it's safe to say that it will be very much worth finding out.