Keeping Chekhov’s Cherry

Chekhov is one of the most difficult modern playwrights to stage.  His writing, like Tennessee Williams’, is incredibly flat on the page–lines like “It’s just six years ago father died, and only a month later our baby brother Grisha drown in the river” read as painfully expository–and thus an incredible burden is placed on his actors.  Even the most well-intentioned productions can drag on with stultifying endlessness and many of the highly-touted translations still feel stilted and brittle; one wrongly cast actor, one poorly delivered line and the entire thing shatters.  Perhaps because of this, when done right, Chekhov can provide an unmatched theatrical experience, a reminder of why we go to the theater in the first place.  The Classical Stage Company’s new production of The Cherry Orchard falls into the latter category.

At the center of the play is an anachronism, a penniless aristocratic family who have squandered their fortune and watched as hardworking peasants have become the comfortable bourgeoisie.  Scenic designer Santo Loquasto has devised an elegant stage, an all-white living room with a tiny dining table, a rocking horse, and a model train set.  It is heartbreaking to watch the actors tower over these props, ineffectively trying to convince themselves that no time has passed since their glorious youth.  Dianne Wiest (Ranevskaya), with her sweet, squinty face and high-pitched voice, is the perfect actress to play the self-deluded matriarch; hearing her declare, “I’m still a little girl,” is utterly wrenching.  Each act, too, is punctuated by the mournful sounds of a Russian Jewish band—a tradition, more than any, that cannot stop looking back at the past.

A little ways in, Epikhodov (Michael Urie) declares, “I am an educated man.  I read a plethora of extraordinary books; and yet I am ignorant as to the direction I want my life to go.  Live, or blow my brains out.  So, as a precaution, I always carry a revolver.”  This seems to be the decision each character has to make in the play, and yet most are too terrified by the question to address it.  The family could easily survive if they tore down the house and started renting out plots, but Ranevskaya ignores the solution each time it is raised, instead giving away the last of her money and delaying a confrontation with reality.  She chooses death, albeit through atrophy, not violence.

But just as Chekhov traces the tragedy of a falling class, he also spends as much time with the struggles of a rising one.  Lopakhin (John Turturro) was born into a slave family and is now richer than those his father served.  A tirelessly working businessman who wears all black to match his pessimism, he is the one who keeps urging Ranevskaya to save her land, but ultimately snags it himself at an auction.  He is torn by the decision, and also devastated that he can never buy his way into the aristocracy: at the beginning of the play, he laments, “I’ve got money.  Lots and lots of money.  But if you really look at me, you can see, I’m still a peasant.  I’m reading this book, and I don’t understand a word.”  There is also a sinister undertone to the way that he constantly teases Trofimov (Josh Hamilton), the “perpetual student” whose endless babbling about how happiness is “getting closer and closer” could almost play as Soviet propaganda if it weren’t so riddled with bathos.  But Mr. Turturro hits all the right notes—it’s not all bug-eyed cruelty—and it is a mark of his talent that he can elicit so much sympathy for a character who puts the final nail in this family’s coffin.  Of course, this is the power of the play—everybody and nobody are to blame.

Ultimately, The Cherry Orchard is a definitive black comedy, and director Andrei Belgrader has assembled a pitch-perfect production, filled with so many wonderful and subtle moments that it would be futile to try and name them all—for example, when Fiers (Alvin Epstein, who played the Fool to Orson Welles’ Lear), the old family butler whose role as servant has become meaningless with their descent, refuses the assistance of Lopakhin when hobbling offstage; though they were born into the same class, Fiers treats successful peasants like uppity servants who have lost their sense of place in society.  At the very end, when the house has been vacated, he emerges from his room to exhale, “They forgot about me.”  Then, he utters what may be the perfect summation of both the play as well as Chekhov’s entire dramatic career: “My life’s happened without me, it’s as if I’d never been born.”  A scrim is drawn around this last remaining actor, a neat visual trick with funereal connotations.  And when the actors emerged for the curtain call, Mr. Turturro stumbled onstage as if he didn’t know where he was or how he had spent the last two hours; having just seen a production as powerful and immersive as this one, I felt the same way.

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Aaron Botwick

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