The two women pause and suddenly exclaim that they must reconcile—apparently they had been at odds for some time. They drink to their friendship. Yelena confesses that when she first met Serebryakov, he "fascinated" her, but her love was not real; as a result, Sonya has silently chastised her since the wedding.
Sonya then reveals her love for the doctor. Yelena enthusiastically hails him as "gifted," and his occasional coarseness should be forgiven. Clearly Astrov fascinates Yelena as well. Yelena then turns inward: unlike the gifted Astrov, she feels herself to be but an "incidental character" in all aspects of her life—in her abandoned musical studies, her love affairs, her household, and so on.
Inexplicably, Sonya laughs with joy. Yelena impulsively decides to play the piano. "I'll play the piano and cry, cry like a foolish girl," declares Yelena to herself. Sonya rushes out to ask her father if music would be permissible. Outside Yelena can hear the night watchman, and she commands him to be still. Sonya returns: they are not allowed to play.
As noted in the Context, Chekhov, along with Ibsen and Strindberg, pioneered what David Magarshack in Chekhov the Dramatist calls the "indirect action" play. This type of play uses understatement and broken conversation, off-stage events and absent characters as catalysts of tension while retaining a strict impression of realism. The strange end of Act II provides a particularly rich example to discuss these techniques.
Throughout these scenes, characters refer to actions that have not transpired on-stage: for example, the arguments between Serebryakov and Dr. Astrov or Astrov's getting drunk with Voynitsky. These moments exemplify what David Magarshack terms the "messenger element" of the indirect action play, in which the audience is informed of an unseen episode. Often, the use of this device is one of disorientation, in a sense distancing or "estranging" the audience from the spectacle on-stage by making the artificial nature of the play manifest.
With the encounter between the two women, we have an especially interesting example of indirect action, one that we can examine to great profit in explaining the device. Though Sonya and Yelena have certainly not been friendly up to this point, we have had no intimation of their conflict. Thus their sudden reconciliation after a few awkward pauses apparently comes out of nowhere even as it remains wholly feasible within the narrative (that is, explicable as an ongoing antagonism we simply have not seen).