“I made the point on the first day of rehearsal: Unless you speak Russian, you’re never going to see The Three Sisters by Chekhov in a theater,” Tracy Letts says.
On a recent morning at Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s offices, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of August: Osage County is telling me what to expect from his adaptation of Three Sisters. Rather, what not to expect.
“I made a conscious decision pretty early on to strip away all of one thing and then see the places it just couldn’t survive without it,” Letts says of his version, which reunites him with August director Anna D. Shapiro. He removed all of Chekhov’s topical references, his characters’ quotations of Lermontov and Gogol, all of the Russian patronymics and references to characters’ ages and name days—“[not] because I think that stuff’s useless or pointless,” he says, but because “my guiding principle was to try to deliver his ideas as directly to the audience as I could through the actors.”
That spare approach has gotten some push-back, he says, from Shapiro, dramaturg and Russian-theater historian Dassia N. Posner, and cast member Yasen Peyankov, “who’s kind of a Chekhov scholar in his own right,” Letts notes. “They have such an attachment to Chekhov. It makes for a great dynamic in the rehearsal room, them sort of fighting to get some of these things back in, me sort of fighting to keep them out.”
“It's been a similar process really to when we’re working on a new play,” Shapiro says later on the phone. “We’re in agreement about the goal—to make sure the adaptation embraced the muscular language of Chekhov.”
“Sometimes I don’t think it pays to be too…beholden,” Letts says, choosing the word carefully. “We’re not building a totem to Chekhov. We’re trying to create a living evening in the theater.”
The adaptation came about thanks to Portland, Oregon’s Artists Repertory Theatre, which was commissioning new versions of Chekhov’s four major plays. “They approached me a number of years ago—before August: Osage County hit, I should say—and I needed the bread, so I took the job,” Letts, who turns 47 on July 4, says with a wry grin. “I thought, Well, how hard can that be, just putting somebody else’s play into my words?”
The author soon learned how hard it was. Every character in his own plays, he says, is a version of himself: “From the most noble, heroic character to just the most venal, disturbing, disgusting character—they’re all me,” he says. “That’s not the case in Three Sisters. They’re not me, they’re Chekhov. That act of trying to interpret his people is not a natural creative act.”
Though he’s glad to have taken on the challenge, Letts says this is his first and last adaptation of someone else’s play. “If I’m gonna work that hard, I’d rather have an original play at the end of it to show for it.”
Letts adapted his own script for the film version of Killer Joe, slated to open in Chicago August 3. He’s also drafted a screenplay for August: Osage County. “They take the screenplay away from me at some point and start figuring out how to actually make the goddamn movie,” he says. This fall, he’ll reprise his role as George in the Broadway transfer of Steppenwolf’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
And he’s begun work on a new play, about which he’ll only say, “It’s the play no one’s going to like. I told Anna that, and she said, ‘It’s about time! It’s about time you wrote a play that nobody likes. You’re due.’ ”
Three Sisters previews Thursday 28 and opens Sunday 8.