Scena Theatre’s planned staging of Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters was set to open August 14 under the direction of Gabriele Jakobi. The Berlin native, who’s staged Genet’s The Maids and Brecht’s Mother Courage for the company, has a knack for assembling dazzling casts and infusing difficult plays with a rich and vivid sense of humanity. In early June, though, Jakobi suffered a stroke.
Nanna Ingvarsson and her husband Brian Hemmingsen, Scena veterans who’ve worked with Jakobi before and were slated to collaborate with her again on Three Sisters, describe a powerful presence accustomed to communicating physically as well as verbally—English not being the director’s first language—now fighting her way back to full strength in a northern Virginia hospital room, knowing precisely what she wants to say but sometimes relying on the visitors around her to supply the words. When the visitors get those words wrong, Ingvarsson says, it’s pretty clear. “You can see in her eyes,” Ingvarsson explains. “I’ll realize, ‘I’ve seen that look before.’”
Both actors describe Jakobi as a director who throws herself at a play with an appetite for bold concepts that might give others pause, but not a dictator. “She’s very close to the characters,” Ingvarsson says. “She’s very good about working with the actors to get there. That’s incredibly rare and important.”
There was no question that Three Sisters would be put on hold for next year rather than going forward without Jakobi, who’d been talking to her cast about a version of the play set in a more modern milieu, with characters older than those in the original. “It’s her vision,” Hemmingsen says. “It has to be her.”
To fill the gap in Scena’s season, artistic director Robert McNamara will step in with a revival of his gender-bent staging of The Importance of Being Earnest. Hemmingsen—who at 6’3 is what you might describe as an imposing figure—will once again tackle the part of domineering Lady Augusta Bracknell in the Oscar Wilde comedy of manners; Ingvarsson is on board as well, playing one of the society swells at the story’s center. The aim, McNamara says, is to generate “a sense of dizziness—the fun of the sexual rondelay” that’s there between the lines of Wilde’s arch dialogue, with its tug-of-war between the proper and improper impulse among the Victorian upper crust.
“We treat it like a gigantic silent film, but with words,” McNamara says. And yes, it plays maybe a touch more broadly than some productions: “There’s a little bit of Charley’s Aunt,” the director laughs.