The stage directions situate us in the Prozorov home in a big living room where the table's being set for lunch. Hopefully you grabbed a snack beforehand, because boy have we got a long way to go.
We're introduced to the sisters: Olga, wearing a dark blue dress and correcting student papers; Masha, wearing black and reading; and Irina, wearing white and daydreaming.
Can the colors people wear and the things they do work as symbols? Hopefully you're already thinking about it.
It's Irina's birthday (or name day, which is the event Russians prefer to celebrate. Which one it is in the play depends on the translation you're reading).
Olga handily offers a little recap of their family history. The girls' father died a year ago on this day. He was a general in the military, and his assignment moved the family from Moscow to this small country town.
It's immediately obvious that all of the sisters want to go back to Moscow.
Olga is the oldest; she's single and has been teaching for four years. Hence the grading papers.
Masha, the middle daughter, is married, so she's stuck in this town with her husband.
Irina is the youngest. She's the only sister in a good mood.
Two officers enter: Tuzenbach and Solyony. They're having a meaningless argument.
On the off-chance you missed your mandatory how-Russians-make-last-names-into-jokes lesson, Solyony means "salty" in Russian. Keep that in mind with this dude.
Tuzenbach informs the girls that their commanding officer, Vershinin, will pay them all a visit. He's in his mid-forties, married to a crazy woman, and has three daughters (hey, sound familiar? At least, the three daughters part).
The army doctor, Chebutykin, shows up. He's an old friend of the family and especially dotes on Irina.
Irina's dreaming of work. She doesn't want to be an idle aristocrat anymore. Tuzenbach agrees with her.
Masha puts on her hat to leave. She's in a foul mood, partly because the birthday party is so small. She remembers when thirty or forty officers would come to their shindigs.
Two elderly workers come in with a birthday cake, and Chebutykin presents a silver samovar (a fancy Russian coffeemaker, but for tea).
Vershinin arrives. The sisters recall meeting him when they were little girls. They called him "the lovesick major."
He remembers when he was young and in love. Now he's not.
Everyone gets nostalgic for Moscow. This is kind of a theme in the play.
Vershinin philosophizes about the future. This is another thing that happens a lot throughout the play (everyone loves a good Russian philosophy sesh).
Offstage, the sisters' brother Andrey is playing the violin. He's in love with a village girl, Natasha, who none of the sisters like at all.
Andrey comes in and meets Vershinin. The sisters are kind of insufferable with their brother; either they tease him or they brag about how talented he is. Here's where Chekhov's "realism" comes in—what family doesn't drive you kinda crazy?
All of the Prozorovs are educated—too educated to feel comfortable in this provincial town. In other words, they all play instruments and know at least three languages. That means they're pretty much outcasts in a place where most people can barely whistle and only scrape by with Russian.
Vershinin muses that their education isn't for nothing. They may be the minority now, but in future years cultivated people will be the majority.
Masha decides to stay for lunch. Yes, right after Vershinin's burst of positude.
Masha's husband Kulygin enters with a gift for Irina—a history of the local high school, written by him.
He gave her the same present last year. That iPod is starting to sound better and better.
Masha isn't so thrilled her husband has appeared, and is even less happy that he wants her to join him at some school function.
Everyone goes in to lunch, and Irina and Tuzenbach are left in the living room. Tuzenbach is in love with her and has clearly already proposed to her. Awk.
Natasha arrives wearing colorful, tacky clothes. Olga welcomes the girl but says something snarky about her belt.
There's a brief table scene in which all the characters make fun of each other, Solyony makes lots of obnoxious remarks, and two more soldiers come in. Pretty much everyone actually seems like they're enjoying themselves for a minute.
Everyone teases Natasha and Andrey about their mutual crush. Natasha is embarrassed and runs out, and Andrey follows her. He proposes and they kiss.