Review of “The Cherry Orchard” by Walking the dog Theater at PS 21
by Gail Burns and Abby Turner
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Gail Burns: I always start my reviews of Chekhov with the disclaimer that you are either a Chekhov person or not a Chekhov person – it is a genetic trait like blue eyes or freckles – and there is nothing I can write and nothing any director/cast/crew can do to change that. I am a Chekhov person. What many people find inscrutible and dull I find fascinating and clever and often side-splittingly funny.
That being said, The Cherry Orchard, his last play, which was written over a period of years and finally performed in 1904, is not his funniest even though Chekhov himself called it a “farce.” Neither the original director, the legendary Constantin Stanislavski, nor David Anderson here in this Walking the dog production, played it for laughs. This production is also based on a translation by Carol Rocamora that is new to me.
Abby Turner: Obviously we need one of your snappy summaries of the play. You are so good at it, and you know the play much better than I do.
Gail: Liubóv Andréyevna Ranyévskaya (Lora Lee Ecobelli) and her brother Leonid Andréyich Gáyev (Glenn Barrett) arrive back at their ancestral home in May, when the cherry orchard is in bloom, with their family and servants. Mme. Ranyévskaya has an adopted daughter, Varya (Lily Balsen), who runs the estate along with Firs the butler (David Wade Smith), Semyón Yepikhódov (Gabriel Rodriguez) the clerk/bookkeeper, and Dunyasha (Natalie Li-Ting Wong) the maid. Ánya (Josephine Elwood), Mme. Ranyévskaya’s biological daughter, who is all of seventeen, arrives with mother and her uncle, along with Anya’s governess Charlotta (Nancy Rothman) and a manservant Yásha (Joseph Freeman). Neighbors Yermolái Alexéyich Lopákhin (John Romualdi) and Boris Semyónov-Pishchik (Philip X. Levine) are permanent fixtures in the family’s life, as is a “perpetual student” Pétya Trofimov (Paul Boothroyd) who is in love with Ánya. Kevin Kilb plays both the stationmaster and a down-trodden passerby who comes begging during a family outing in Act II, and Simon Frishkoff plays two other small roles.
The Cherry Orchard is all about change, and the inability of the this family to accept or manage it. Their country estate, including the house and a sizable cherry orchard as well as other lands, is being auctioned off to pay the mortgage. Although different options for keeping the house, if not the land, in the family are proposed, the family remain immobilized by a lack of courage and imagination, and ultimately the estate is purchased by Lopákhin, a noveau riche merchant whose ancestors were literally owned by the family as serfs. Although it is rumored throughout that he will marry to Varya, he never proposes, and so the house and land passes from the family’s grasp forever.
Abby: I hadn’t seen The Cherry Orchard in so long that I’d forgotten how it combines Russian drama and humor and an epically frustrating failure to get anything done. The failure to act. The terrible consequences. Or are they so terrible? In their own fey ways, the characters will go on. The setting will change. Of course, the cherry orchard will be forever lost. Ranyévskaya will go back to Paris to be exploited by the love of her life – and her ever disappearing fortune. Lopákhin will go on to build his fortune ever putting more distance between his serf origins and his currently wealthy reality. Leonid Gáyev will become an unsuccessful banker, but one with a salary and with respect and a place in the life of rural Russia. And so on. They will all remain exasperatingly unmarried as they have for many years. But there is a glimmer of hope in Trofimov and Ánya as they go off to try to find an idealistic vision that only the very youthful could pursue. If they fail, it will not be due to inaction driven by the unwillingness to take risks.
Gail: This was your first trip to PS21 for a Walking the dog production. I find it about as hard to describe the special nature of that venue and the remarkable style of that company as I do explain why I find Chekhov funny. How was the experience for you?
Abby: Congratulations to Walking the dog Theater. A very gifted company with outstanding actors, great costumes and sets. PS21 offers an amazing setting in a tent in a beautiful meadow in Chatham. You could all but smell the cherry blossoms. The distant sound of the train whistle came as if on cue as the night slowly descended on the theatre.
Gail: I loved the perfectly timed train whistle early in the show, and even the actors beamed with delight as they heard it. We saw the very first preview performance, and knowing how Wtd works they will be tweaking the production over the coming week before the official opening, but I didn’t see much that needed work. It was a fine performance.
Abby: I am once again bowled over by the quality of theatre we have here in the Berkshires. As an ex-New Yorker, I feel that I made an excellent trade for the big city lights to the more modest companies we have here. I happily trade the razzle dazzle for the intimacy of local theatres, the low ticket price which makes theatre a real possibility, and the genuinely high quality of the work that we see.
Gail: Wtd does things simply but with very high standards. I loved the lighting design by Bradley Fay that synchronized perfectly with the falling darkness – a trick that must be adjusted for each performance as the days grow shorter. Kara Demler’s costumes, especially for Ecobelli, were handsome and effective, and the moveable set by Ralph Bedard and David Anderson with Wendy Frost worked perfectly and was full of surprises.
How did you enjoy the performances?
Abby: Where to begin? Lora Lee Ecobelli plays a deeply appealing Ranyévskaya who lives in the sweetly remembered past of her youth and early marriage before she ran off to France following the death of her young son. If that tragedy had not occurred, would she have deserted her family? Possibly. She suffers from an inability to cope with the big and small things that life is constructed from. And her family suffers with her. Could the sale of the family estate have been averted? Possibly. But you can’t mold a future when you are hypnotically staring into a dream of the remembered past. And this is the problem that the gentry of Russia are dealing with at a time of great change.
Gail: Chekhov lived in a very interesting period of Russian history. He was born in 1860, one year before Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs, and dead in 1904, just one year before the “Bloody Sunday” massacre that sowed the seeds for the Bolshevik revolution and communism. Chekhov’s characters often speak of the future and the changes that must and will happen to get mankind from where we are to where we could or should be.
Abby: Barrett captured the eccentric character of Leonid Gáyev who is given to pontificating to no particular end. He seems quietly contented in this crumbling world. I developed quite an affection for both the character and the actor as he ineffectively muddles through a life that rambles on in spite of him.
Josephine Elwood’s Ánya seemed to me to be missing something. It is unclear why the family dotes on her so. Is this the script or the acting? Perhaps the youth of the actor? She is sweet and lovely, but she needs to be more since it is her character and Trofimov who embody the hope for a future not based on possession, but on something ineffable, but true. I believed that she was drawn to this bright future by a man, but I want her to be admirable. I want her to be a woman of substance. Perhaps her character so young that she is not fully formed and these qualities will develop – but I wanted them now.
Gail: The two adopted sisters are written as very stark contrasts. Varya is a responsible and serious type who is hampered by the inability of Lopákhin to get his act together to propose to her.
Romualdi a very appealing and sympathetic Lopákhin, and Levine a wonderfully dithering Pishchik. Freeman rought out all that was loathsome in Yásha, and Rothman was entertainingly eccentric as Charlotta.
Abby: One of the difficulties with this play is that the quality of the acting is so high that I find fault when the deficiencies are truly minor. My standards grow in response to the strength of what is being offered. But this is a delightful evening of theatre. It deserves the highest compliment that I can give a play. I would see it again, and perhaps I will.
Gail: This is a lengthier and more serious work than Wtd has offered at PS21 in previous summers, so people should not bring young children. But if you are of age and a Chekhov person you will enjoy this thoughtful, touching and visually stunning theatre experience.