The Cherry Orchard
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 13, 2005
The Cherry Orchard is about a once-aristocratic Russian family coping—with very little success—with their fall from social and economic grace. Lyubov Ranevskaya is a middle-aged widow who owns, with her older brother Leonid Gayev, their ancestral provincial estate, complete with a large house and an enormous, famed cherry orchard. It's the turn of the 20th century, and Russian landowners as a group are in trouble: ever since the freeing of the serfs in 1861, their dominion over lands has been more and more threatened by soon-to-be revolutionary events over which they have little control.
Alas, Ranevskaya and Gayev can't manage even what they can control: he's pretty dim, and she is fairly profligate with money, especially where the Frenchman who has intermittently been her lover/gigolo for the past several years is concerned. In fact, she's just returning from Paris when the play begins, having been abandoned by her boyfriend and needing to deal with the impending financial crisis. For the estate is heavily mortgaged and both Ranevskaya and Gayev are too deep in debt to pay it off. It's clear that they are about to lose their home and their beloved orchard.
Yermolay Lopakhin, son and grandson of serfs who once worked for the Gayevs, and now a rich and prosperous member of Russia's rising middle class, has a plan to save the estate. All they need to do is cut down the cherry trees and subdivide the land into lots for summer cottages. The proceeds will be more than enough to pay off all the debts and keep the family in their home. Ranevskaya won't hear of it—never seems to actually hear the words at all, in fact. She doesn't exactly live in the past, but she's unwilling to face the present, let alone a future in which she's not the spoiled and unaccountable heiress that she's always been.
Sounds like the stuff of tragedy, doesn't it? But Anton Chekhov always said that The Cherry Orchard, with his other famous plays, is a comedy; that's certainly how David Epstein has staged the play for this revival by Invisible City Theatre Company. The innate and unexorcisable foolishness of these foundering aristocrats is front and center in this production, with Cindy Keiter's Ranevskaya a weepy ditz in the Billie Burke mode and Steve Deighan's Gayev very nearly a blithering idiot who can do little but play at billiards and speechify emptily. There's nary a trace of sympathy for these two; they're played mostly for laughs and also as rather shallow symbols of the cosmic shift that Chekhov is chronicling in this work. Younger people who understand this shift—Lopakhin, for example (portrayed by Gerry Lehane as an overbearing but ultimately right-thinking democrat), and possibly Ranevskaya's daughters Anya and Varya—are the only characters we can really latch onto here; the passionate but ineffectual perpetual student Trofimov (J.T. Patton, in a fine performance) embodies the paradox of Russia on the cusp of modernity, moved by the coming tide of events but immobilized to actually join in.
It's a surprisingly political take on The Cherry Orchard, with the dichotomy between old Firs, the servant who has been in the house for decades and rues the day he was freed some forty years before, and Yasha, the slick young butler who maneuvers himself into a position in Ranevskaya's new household in France, emerging as the most resonant storyline in the piece. Certainly the performances of Richard Kohn and Zac Springer as Firs and Yasha respectively are the most interesting ones in this revival.
Food for thought, this; but what's lost is a good deal of Chekhov's humanity. The ineffable longings and the inexplicable dual natures of ordinary people are an important part of a play like The Cherry Orchard, but they're mostly not depicted in this production. As a result, the relationships among the various characters feel cursory rather than deeply felt; in a few cases, notably that of Charlotta Ivanovna, it's never clear exactly who some of these people are or what they're doing in this household at this particular time.
Epstein has done his usual miraculous work with Manhattan Theatre Source's tiny stage, abetted this time around by scenic designer Ed McNamee, whose Act Two garden set, when it reveals itself, is something of a coup de theatre.