The Cherry Orchard
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
February 4, 2005
“When there are many remedies recommended for an illness it means that the illness is incurable,” Anton Chekhov writes in the first act of his classic 1904 play The Cherry Orchard. Life sometimes offers us many solutions. At times it offers so many that it seems futile to make a decision at all, and yet life persists whether we do or not. This theme may seem tragic to you and me, but to Chekhov it is fodder worthy of high comedy. The Classical Theatre of Harlem offers us a remarkable version of The Cherry Orchard that not only reaches Chekhov’s goal of high comedy but retains the innate tragedy that flows beneath every line.
The Cherry Orchard was written when Chekhov was dying of tuberculosis. It is an exercise in unrestrained futility in which a dying aristocracy struggles to preserve itself. Mrs. Ranevsky is the bankrupt lady of a manor which is going up for auction. She has several choices as to how she may save the manor but she can’t seem to focus on any of them. Mr. Lopakhin is a wealthy businessman who is one generation away from serfdom. He constantly reminds Ranevsky of her need to act quickly. Ranevsky has two daughters, Varya and Anya; one is pious and serious and the other is young and naeve. Each has impossible love interests and each finds herself as lost in life as their mother. Leonid, Ranevsky’s brother, is a helpless aristocrat who is most lucid when he is calling imaginary billiard shots. Chekhov gives us a slice of early 20th century Russian life with a range of characters from a forward-thinking Socialist to a regressive octogenarian who recalls the days when everyone knew their place. Chekhov is a master of writing plays that are seemingly plotless but in fact have an intricate action and inaction. The Cherry Orchard is a venerable expression of the shifting attitudes that prevailed at the turn of the last century.
The first thing I noticed about this outstanding production was Troy Hourie’s set. It is so minimal with its scrims and barren trees and yet so evocative of a grand manor that was once the very essence of elegance but is now cracked and decaying. The cast is an absolute powerhouse. Wendell Pierce plays a potent Lopakhin. His presence dominates the stage and his spin on this character creates a nuance that I had never considered. Petronia Paley is electrifying as the feckless matriarch who floats in with girlish wide eyes but ultimately departs looking older with her eyes full of desolation and fear of the unknown. She swings from mood to mood with the grace of trapeze artist. Charles Turner turns in an excellent performance as Leonid, the aging aristocrat who is full of non sequiturs and a distaste for the smell of his servants. George C. Hosmer is hilarious as Pishchik, a landowner who is constantly in search of money to borrow, and Earle Hyman steals every scene he’s in as the ancient mumbling butler, Firs. Dana Watkins does a fine job as the idealistic, eternal student Trofimov. Watkins balances hope and logic with remarkable skill. However, I was most impressed with Roslyn Ruff, who plays Varya with such staunch emotional truth that she almost single handedly supplies the tragedy of the play. The rest of the cast—Vinie Burrows, Darian Dauchan, J. Kyle Manzay, Carolyn Ratteray, Chandra Thomas, Natalia Goncharov, and Michael C. O’Day—all deliver extraordinary performances that help to make the ensemble remarkably tight.
Director Christopher McElroen creates a vivacious combination of moods that is alluringly theatrical. McElroen constructs beautiful pictures, such as his ending tableau where the whole cast takes a final seat, expect for Lopakhin. The dancing couples at the top of Act Three are also a very nice touch; choreographer Bruce Heath should also be commended for this scene. Lopakhin’s victory dance with the limp and destitute Ranevsky is an image that I’ll never forget, and the moment shortly after, when Lopakhin takes Varya’s hand and kneels before her, is played with such sincerity that I nearly forgot that I knew what was going to happen next.
I never saw the complexity and internal conflict that I have always perceived as the core of Lopakhin’s character. Here, he is almost ruthless. He doesn’t seem to struggle with his indentured upbringing. Perhaps McElroen is instead trying to convey that Lopakhin has taken on the mentality of those who oppressed his family for generations and has in turn become the oppressor.
Overall, McElroen holds a tight rein on is actors, never allowing them to shoot for the cheap laugh nor to become too sentimental during the entire two hour program. On the technical side, Jenny Mannis’s costumes are slick and elegant and Jeff Croiter’s lighting is alternately warm and cool, following the mood swings of the play. Dramaturge Debra Cardona does an excellent job keeping everyone on the same page with the many mouthfuls of Russian names in this play.
The Cherry Orchard is a peculiar fusion of the tragedy of existence and the human comedy of conduct. There is never a single solution when it comes to presenting classic plays. The Classical Theatre of Harlem places their production of The Cherry Orchard center stage and allows it to unfurl before us like a delusion of happiness that pauses to remember that tomorrow may bring heartbreak.