The Cherry Orchard
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
June 11, 2005
Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a self-termed “comedy”, lends itself to many disparate and interesting descriptions. It is, in some ways, a “play of ideas” in which former serfs and members of aristocratic society (and their somewhat more well-adjusted descendants) struggle to find their social and ideological footing on a more even playing field in the years following the fall of feudalism. But the playwright is not making any apparent argument, not glorifying the past or the future, not wanting us to go away preferring one of the two. He is documenting a certain cultural transition.
The Cherry Orchard might also be usefully interpreted as a light-hearted tragedy. The tragic heroine being Madame Ranevskaya; her tragic flaw: compulsive generosity (allowing lovers to leach off her, encouraging her entourage to live above her/their means, giving alms at the expense of her children and brother); her fate: losing her family estate, which includes the eponymous orchard. It is light-hearted because Chekhov is not seriously imploring us to feel too sorry for this formerly-wealthy bunch who must now, gulp, actually find work.
Another description of this play might be a farce of the heart: an ensemble of lost souls, enacting the emotional equivalent of pratfalls, slamming doors, and mistaken identities. The (actually not) funny thing is that the real people they are clumsily trying to elude or deceive are themselves. Rare and brief are the moments when two individuals are able to truly see eye-to-eye (even Anya, Madame Ranevskaya’s daughter, and Trofimov, the family tutor, who seem to be among the most self-aware of the bunch, have strenuously convinced themselves that they have transcended romantic love and share a much more enlightened bond). Yet rarer and briefer are the times when one individual is able to take a clear-eyed look at him or her self (who comes the closest? Perhaps Yepikhodov, the bookkeeper—a squeaky-shoed, grinning and guitar-strumming geek, who, accepting his irrefutable status as a weirdo, seems content to perpetually court Dunyasha, the young maid who is politely unfazed by his affections).
Gayev, Madame Ranevskaya’s brother, makes an aphorism along the lines of “If there are many cures for a disease, then it is incurable.” Putting a more optimistic spin on it, I would say “If there are many interpretations of a play, then it is universal.” A perfect illustration of this is Atlantic Theatre Company’s production of The Cherry Orchard in a new—and terrific—adaptation by Tom Donaghy, masterfully conducted by director Scott Zigler, and performed by a uniformly superb ensemble of actors.
I urge you to see it. Donaghy’s colloquial and lulling language belies the growing panic as August 21st approaches: the day the estate will be auctioned. Similarly, the characters go from restless to restive as they watch Madame Ranevskaya, in an earthy yet oblivious turn by Brooke Adams, seem confused by their gloom, as though her purse were incontinent and emptying itself. Worthy of special mention are the alternately garrulous and exasperated Larry Bryggman as Gayev, Todd Weeks’s charming buffoonery in the role of Yepikhodov, and, in a small but crucial part, Mary McCann’s witty portrayal of Charlotta, Anya’s governess, a magician and independent woman who is looking out for herself first.
And then there are the last few moments of the play after Ranevskaya and her entourage have bid farewell to her house and beloved orchard, accidentally leaving behind the aging butler, Firs (the ensorcelling Alvin Epstein). Disoriented, he wanders about for a bit, before stopping to witness the cherry trees being cut down to make way for a number of villas. (Fitz Patton’s sound design—which seems to put us in the middle of the fated orchard—is extraordinary). Epstein, whose performance is the very soul of this hilarious and heart-rending production, watches this razing with a near-vacant expression that is something quite beyond woe.
Referencing Chekhov’s dissatisfaction with the play’s premiere under Stanislavsky’s strictly naturalistic direction, the dramaturg’s note states the Atlantic’s intention to present us with a production of The Cherry Orchard that is more in keeping with the author’s comic intention and existential vision. I do believe they have done that. I really felt like I saw the play—with no obfuscation, no distracting directorial “choices” or interfering actorly egos. It was as though the play was the wind and Zigler and his agents were the trees at its mercy.