The Cherry Orchard
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 7, 2010
There is no such thing as the definitive production of a great play; a great director will always coax something new and unexpected out of the truly extraordinary works in the canon, which is precisely why you should see Terry Schreiber's new production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. I left the theatre as if seeing this classic piece for the first time. Whether you've seen zero Chekhov plays or all of the main ones a dozen times each, there is much to glean and discover in this incisive revival.
The story of The Cherry Orchard revolves around Madame Ranevskaya, a middle-aged lady who is about to lose her family's estate. Ranevskaya is a victim of circumstance (after her husband died and her little boy was drowned, she escaped Russia for a somewhat dissolute life in Paris, determined to forget her sorrow), of history (the serfs, freed a generation ago, are moving to the city and gaining in economic clout, at the expense of the Russian landowners), and of her own weak character (she's a frivolous, generous woman, too free with her dwindling cash).
Ranevskaya, like any proper Chekhov protagonist, is surrounded by all manner of relatives and hangers-on. She has two daughters: the elder, Varya, runs the estate, and is in love (unrequitedly) with Lopakhin, the son of former serfs who has now made himself into a millionaire; the younger, Anya, falls in love with the student/revolutionary philosopher Trofimov, who talks endlessly about the work that must to be done to reform the country (though seems reluctant or unable to actually do any of this work). Ranevskaya also has a brother, Gaev, who is as much a wastrel as herself; he's at loose ends worrying, with his sister, about the fate of their home and their massive, fabled cherry orchard. There are also servants: Firs, the 90-year-old family retainer; Yasha, the opportunistic youngster who wants to go back to Paris with his mistress as quickly as possible; Dunyasha, the flighty maid; and Yepikhodov, the clumsy, gloomy clerk who chases after Dunyasha. And more: Charlotta, the children's former governess, herself the child of circus performers, stuck with the realization that she's completely obsolete in every way; and Pischik, a neighbor mortgaged beyond the hilt, whose every sentence seems to end with a request for another hundred rubles.
Chekhov gives us here—much more clearly than in any of his other plays, I think—a microcosm of the Russian nation on the brink of change. The Cherry Orchard was written in 1904, just a year before the first burst of revolution that would culminate in 1917 with the establishment of the Soviet Union and the end, forever, of the fading aristocracy of which Ranevskaya and Gaev are exemplars. Although these two are the ones whose lives are changing most irrevocably in this play, they are not necessarily the characters we empathize with, at least not here. They feel trivial but they also feel as resilient as they are foolish.
It is Lopakhin who emerges as the central focus of this reading of the play. I love the characterization that Schreiber and actor Jamie Kirmser have built for him—not the noble striving poor man getting his own after years of oppression, as I've seen him portrayed in other productions, but rather a grasping, obsessive, and not particularly nice fellow for whom success is a kind of payback for deeply rooted feelings of inferiority. Through Lopakhin we learn that The Cherry Orchard is not so much about the inevitability of change as it is a fretful examination of usurpation and disorder, and for that it's even more prescient, in portending the world that Lenin and Stalin were about to make, than I ever realized.
There's no romance in this Cherry Orchard, though there is love and desire and human comedy of every flavor. It unfolds on a sophisticated unit set designed by Hal Tine that morphs to become the estate's nursery, backyard, ballroom, and, again, the nursery; the final transition, which coincides with the imminent departure of Ranevskaya and Gaev from their home, is executed with palpable melancholy. Dawn Nancy Testa's costumes don't always conjure the period of the play as effectively as they might, but Dennis Parichy's lighting design and Chris Rummel's sound design serve Schreiber's vision beautifully.
The large cast find their way into the intricate and complicated relationships of the play slowly but surely. Julie Garfield is a dynamic, luminous Ranevskaya, and her interplay with Rick Forstmann (Gaev) suggests the deep brother-sister chemistry that's needed for the play to make sense. Robert Pusilo is terrific as the windy neighbor Pischik, and Schreiber regular Peter Judd serves brilliantly as the play's anchor as the ancient Firs, at once wise and foolish like all of humanity. Among the younger generation of characters, Alec A. Head is funny and completely convincing as the hapless Yepikhodov, and Julia Szabo finds unexpected depth in the governess Charlotta. And as I've mentioned, Kirmser's Lopakhin drives the play's theme home, especially in a few unguarded moments in Act Three that reveal his true character in a surprising way.
Schreiber brilliantly navigates the balance between comedy and tragedy that makes this play, like all of Chekhov's best work, so human and so humane. As you plan your theatre-going for this early spring season, see something new that you've never experienced, but also make time to come back to The Cherry Orchard, which is ripe for your (re)discovery here at T. Schreiber Studio.