At Prosorov’s house family and guests are celebrating Irina’s nameday. But the mood isn’t too festive. Olga can’t help remembering their father’s death. Masha is bitter. While their father was alive, all family holidays were celebrated by dozens of brilliant military guests, and now there are only two suitors – tall and awkward baron Tuzenbach who is desperately in love with Irina and the caustic and crude officer Soleniy, who follows Tuzenbach around. Doctor Chebutikin, disillusioned with life and fond of the girls for their dead mother’s sake, makes a disproportionately expensive gift of a silver samovar to Irina. The head of the local council Protopopov never turns up and just sends a cake – a disproportionately familiar gift.
Irina dreams of work – and Tuzenbach supports her passionately. His dream is to work together with her. Olga is not convinced – she works 12 hours a day at school and teaching private lessons. Their brother Andrei – though the girls expect him to become a great scholar – is restlessly waiting for a young local miss Natasha to make an appearance. The new battery commander colonel Vershinin pays them a visit – surely such a tired, lusterless man can’t be from Moscow, from the fabled city the girls were once happy in in their childhood, from the glorious city they yearn to return to. Kuligin, Masha’s husband is just on time – he is serious and proper. His affection makes Masha even more bitter. Tuzenbach finds a private moment to plead with Irina about the benefits of honest work – she does not allow him to speak of love. Natasha arrives – is her belt too tight or just ridiculous? Junior officers Rode and Fedotic rush in to congratulate Irina – everyone poses for a group photo, listening to the ominous almost non-existent sound of the top. At the table the guests joke good-naturedly about Natasha’s marital prospects, hinting in a very genteel way that she might be considered spoilt goods. Natasha rushes out of the room – Andrei follows her. She’s so delicate and beautiful. He proposes. She accepts.
A year has passed. Masha and Vershinin enter from the snow storm. He complains of his unhappy life – an insane wife, two small daughters, pointless military service in the province – and declares his love for Masha. She’s happy – but they are interrupted by Irina returning from hated telegraph service and by Tuzenbach who is seeing her home. Vershinin and Tuzenbach lock in a philosophic dispute – Vershinin insists that happiness is a thing of distant future, Tuzenbach ardently contradics. He wants to believe in the possibility of happiness here and now – if only Irina would return his love. Rode, Fedotik and Soleni arrive with small gifts – Prozorov girls are hosting are winter party, mummers are expected. But the evening does not go according to plan – Vershinin gets word that his wife has tried to poison herself yet again, Soleni insults Natasha who blabbers about her new-born son, Tuzenbach and Soleni have a heart-to-heart, Dr Chebutikin, protective of Irina, insults Soleni. After mentioning several times to no avail that her baby is ill, Natasha cancels the party and asks Andrei to get rid of the noisy guests. They leave, Soleni stays behind and has a romantic moment with Irina. She is first attracted to him, then horrifies with her own frivolity. Natasha uses the moment to ask Irina to move to Olga’s room and give her own room up to Natasha’s baby. Natasha, after spoiling the party for everyone, leaves for a horse ride with her old friend Protopopov. Irina is left alone and dreams of Moscow.
Another year has passed. The city is on fire – military is trying to put it out. At the same time the Prozorov house is metaphorically on fire too: Natasha puts Anfisa, the old nanny, in her place, Dr Chebutikin goes on a binge, Olga has a moment of weakness and tries to seduce Kuligin, Masha and Vershinin are too in love with each other to hide their love, Irina is rude to Soleni thus provoking his jealousy, Tuzenbach has resigned from the army and tries – once more and yet again unsuccessfully – to declare his love for Irina. Three sisters confront Andrei who confesses of heavy drinking and he gambling debts. Natasha is as horrified as the girls. Irina pleads with Olga to go Moscow.
Another year goes by. The army is leaving the city – Rode and Fedotic are paying the farewell visit to Irina and Tuzenbach, who are soon to be married. Kuligin has been decorated. He is dreading Masha’s parting with Vershinin. Masha’s waiting for Vershinin to come to say his farewell. Dr Chebutikin plans to leave with the army. Everyone knows that because of a rash public exchange Tuzenbach and Soleni are due to duel today – but everyone is too busy with their own fears and woes to actually do something about it. Tuzenbach has a heart-to-heart with Irina – and finally realizes that she could not love him. To marry her would be ignoble – he walks off to the duel rather hoping to be killed. Vershinin finally comes in, assures Olga once more that happiness is impossible and with difficulty managers to tear himself away from Masha. Kuligin – the cuckold husband – consoles Masha in her grief. Natasha supervises two kids, endless nannies and her meek husband Andrei. Protopopov is waiting in the sitting-room to take Andrei’s – ae they actually Andrei’s? – kids for a walk. Three sisters are sitting down before the road – Irina is going away to be married. Dr Chebutikin comes in with the news that Tuzenbach is killed at the duel. “I knew it would happen” moans Irina. The future looms – and hardly holds anything nice for the three sisters…