Senior Power: “Try to reason about love, and you will lose your reason,” wrote Russian playwright Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904).

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday April 26, 2011 - 10:30:00 AM

Three Sisters was produced in 1901, in Moscow. It is one of his several great plays: Ivanov (1887-1889), The Seagull (1896, a comedy), Uncle Vanya (1897), and The Cherry Orchard (1903-04). He may have been inspired by the 19th Century literary Bronte family associated with northern England’s historic Yorkshire county -- sisters Charlotte(1816–1855), who wrote Jane Eyre using pen name Currer Bell, Emily (1818-1848) and Anne (1920-1849) -- and brother Patrick Branwell Brontë (1817–1848), a painter and poet. Or by three sisters who were living in Perm, in the European part of Russia. 

Chekhov must have been, in today’s lingo, a nice person. And not just because he is subtle, is concerned about women’s lives, and combines realism (his belief that life is ordinary) with hope and love and work. Three Sisters was written at the turn of the 20th Century, when he was about 40 years old; within 5 years, his life was ended by tuberculosis. 

When we meet the Prozorov family, Russia is about to experience social and political upheaval that will transform her forever. The sisters “age” considerably as it becomes clear that they are doomed to remain isolated in a provincial town far away from their beloved Moscow. Eldest sister Olga’s opening line -- “It’s exactly a year ago today since Father died” -- is the first clue Chekhov gives us. Olga is 28 years old, Masha 25, and Irina 20. Plus schlemiel brother Andrei. 

Chekhov is also concerned about the elders and not-young people who frame this picture. Ferapont, door-keeper watchman whatever at the local council offices, is an old man with a hearing loss. He blurts out irrelevant facts, usually relating to Moscow. Andrei calls him a nuisance. 

Anfisa, the nana,is 82 years old and has always worked for and been a part of the Prozorov family. “There’s no room for misfits in this house” snaps crude intruder cum sister-in-law Natasha, who despises Anfisa’s feebleness and threatens to throw her out. But when motherly Olga becomes permanent headmistress, she takes Anfisa to live with her in her apartment. 

Kulygin, Masha's much older husband and a teacher at the high school, is a jovial, kindly man who loves his wife although he is aware of her infidelity. Long cross-country walks are his hobby. He is the honorary secretary of the town’s rambling society. At the end of the play, although he knows what his wife has been up to, he takes her back and accepts her failings. 

Chebutykin is an eccentric old man, an Army doctor-family friend who lavishes upon Irina a gift of an expensive samovar. As the play opens, it is her name day, and there’s a celebration going on. Chebutykin loved the sisters’ mother. Some critics have suggested that Chekhov is suggesting that Irina might be his daughter. 

Chekhov is different from those other greats of Russian literature, novelists Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) or Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). His plays have been described as a succession of little scenes. The characters often speak in little soliloquies. They sometimes seem alone in a crowd. There is no clear message, no clear advocacy for social reform, for example. 

The frustrated sisters rely on pie-in-the-sky assumptions that are compounded by failure in love and work. If only… Olga regrets being a spinster and dislikes being a school teacher. "If we only knew… If we only knew." Masha has married the wrong man and dislikes being a schoolmaster’s wife. Irina’s fiancé is killed in a duel, and she dislikes working in the post office. Even brother Andrei. He would have liked to have been a professor in Moscow, but works for the municipal council, chaired by his wife’s lover. Time passes. Andrei complains “Where is my past life, oh, what has become of it – when I was young, happy and intelligent, when I had such glorious thoughts and visions, and my present and future seemed so bright and promising?” 

Months may pass between scenes. Time is a crucial ingredient in Chekov’sdrama. He does not make it easy for us. The question of why the sisters are necessarily doomed to remain isolated in the boonies is not resolved. What’s to stop them from returning to Moscow? Is he suggesting that in the face of disappointment, women aren’t assertive? I don’t think so – there is plenty of action! Is this drama sad or funny? Both, I think, for there is humor, and at times the sisters are perky, despite their disappointments in love. Victor Sawdon Pritchett, in praising Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s writing, described her “Chekhovian in her detached observation of the comedy of self-delusion". 

It’s life, folks. He is able to manipulate themes of denial and hope within lives of love and work. Realism-- if you need to put a genre name to it 


I attended a performance of the West Coast premiere of Three Sisters.Matinees at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the award-winning nonprofit regional theater in downtown Berkeley, attract senior citizens-- the volunteer ushers are helpful, and there are no-charge, assisted listening devices available. Senior Rush provides $10.00 seats an hour before the show. 

Chekhov wrote Three Sisters for a proscenium theater, in which the audience directly faces a stage that is typically raised several feet above front row audience level. This production is designed for viewing on the Berkeley Rep’s Thrust stage three sides and providing space for the cast to disperse. 

Originally produced in four acts, Sarah Ruhl’s translation is three not-at-all tedious hours, with one break. Her new version, directed by Les Waters (remember their In the Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play?), is at the Berkeley Rep through Sunday, May 22, 2011.It is based on a literal translation by Elise Thoron, with Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati. Ruhl has earned many honors including a MacArthur Fellowship and two Pulitzer Prize nominations. Her plays have been performed around the world in numerous languages. Waters is the associate artistic director of Berkeley Rep. In the last 5 years, his productions have ranked among the year’s best in The New Yorker, New York Times, Time Magazine and USA Today

If you are unable to attend this real theater, you can borrow from the Library the dvd of the National Theatre Company of England’s Three Sisters motion picture, originally released in 1970 and a literal version of Olivier’s stage version. The cast includes Alan Bates (1934-2003) as Col. Vershinin, Derek Jacobi (born 1938) as Andrei, Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) as Dr. Chebutikin, and Joan Plowright (born 1929) as Masha. Plot keywords assigned to it by the International Movie Database are feeling old and dissatisfaction.  



NEWS and DATES (Best to phone to confirm):

Friday, April 29, noon, free admission. UC,B Dept, of Music. (510) 642-4864. Chamber Orchestra. Hoh Chen, conductor. Igor Stravinsky: L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier's Tale) With original choreography by artistic director Claire Calalo, and dancers from the UC,B community. 

Monday, May 212:30 PM Albany Branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. Brown Bag Speaker’s Forum: Ella Thorp Ellis, author of Dune Child. (510) 526-3720 x16. 

Monday, May 2 6 PM Central Berkeley Public Library. Free. Evening Computer Class. (510)981-6100. (Also Monday evenings, May 9, 16, 23) 

Wednesday, May 412 noon – 1 PM. Albany Branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. 1-on-1 Computer half-hour computer tutoring, registration required: (510) 526-3720 x 16. (Also on Wednesdays, May 11, 18, 25) 

Wednesday, May 412 noon. Central Berkeley Public Library. Free. Playreaders. (510)981-6100. (Also Wednesdays, May 11, 18, 25) 

Thursday, May 510 AM. Central Berkeley Public Library. Free. Computer for Beginners. (510)981-6100. (Also Thursdays, May 10, 19, 26) 

Thursday, May 51:30-3 PM. Albany Branch, Alameda County Library, 1247 Marin Av. Free. Consumer Fraud: Scams Targeting Seniors. (510) 526-3720 x16. 

Saturday, May 7 2 PM. Central Berkeley Public Library. Free. Local Places…Sacred Spaces presents “Berkeley Partners for Parks,” a talk and slide show by the Berkeley Path Wanderers. Information and to confirm no charge: (510)981-6100. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011, 10 A.M.- 2 P.M. 10th Healthy Aging Fair. Largest annual free health screening event for older adults in Alameda County. More information at 

By March 1, 2013: If you receive Social Security or SSI benefits by paper checks, you must switch to electronic payments. Details at

The Digital Inclusion Community Service Initiative is a free Internet and email training program designed for older learners at 7 locations in Oakland and Berkeley. Further information (510)238-4920 or your senior center. 

Kelly Wallace, Manager of Berkeley’s Aging Services, will be conducting town hall meetings in April for all seniors and is “always available to answer questions or provide clarification.” (510) 981-5178. [April 20,2011 Tri-Center Nugget, page 3] 

California’s budget crisis is threatening to decimate crucial health and social services for everyone, but the people who would be most harmed by the proposed cuts are likely to be seniors and people with disabilities. Data obtained by the National Senior Citizens Law Center show that among recipients of the state’s In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) -- a major target for Sacramento budget cutters -- 49 % speak a language other than English at home. [New America Media, Commentary, Katharine Hsiao and Anna Rich, Posted: April 11, 2011.] 

A legislative report by the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, released on April 21, 2011, suggests that California is putting its elderly population at risk of theft and abuse because the state does not regulate in-home caregivers. It found that California is one of a handful of states that does not regulate in-home care agencies. Few people even know they have a right to request a background check on a potential caregiver. The report urges the state to let clients check on past convictions and create a registry that would allow clients to find caregivers who have been screened. It also recommends a public awareness campaign to let the elderly know they are entitled to a state Department of Justice background check when they are thinking of hiring a caregiver. 

The Associated Press reports that on April 14, 2011 the world’s oldest man died, at age 114. Walter Breuning lived in a Great Falls, Montana retirement home and died of undisclosed natural causes in a hospital. His secret to a long life: embrace change, eat 2 meals a day, work as long as you can, help others, never be afraid to die. 

Drugging of California nursing home residents is at an all-time high. California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform (CANHR)’s campaign to Stop Chemical Restraints in Nursing Homes has a petition to the Governor. You can sign it online: About 25,000 California nursing home residents are currently given antipsychotic drugs that greatly increase their risk of death. 

Vermontis weighing a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Terrence Youk, brother of a Michigan man whose 1998 euthanasia death ultimately sent Dr. Jack Kevorkian to prison, believes Kevorkian was providing a service, not committing a crime. He supports a "death with dignity" bill before the Legislature, says people should have the option. The Vermont bill does not contemplate euthanasia, but, rather, physician-assisted suicide. It would let doctors prescribe a lethal dose of pills for patients deemed mentally competent and have been diagnosed with less than 6 months to live. The patient would then administer the drugs to himself or herself. [“Vermont man has unique perspective on lawmakers' end-of-life debate; brother was Kevorkian patient,” byJohn Curran. Associated Press. April 17, 2011] 

Reminder: See, and watch Council! 


Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at Please, no email attachments or phone calls.