By Philip Pearce
WHAT A GREAT PIECE OF THEATER is Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard! Written at a time of profound social change in pre-revolutionary Russia, it views that troubled period through the shifts and shocks of a family of privileged Russian landowners and the household retainers who keep them precariously alive and functioning. Lyubov Ranevskaya returns home to Russia from Paris to face the possible auctioning off of her landowner family’s beloved cherry orchard.
It’s a play peopled with some of the greatest character parts in 20th century comedy drama and Mountain Community Theater’s current production is blessed to have Bill Peters as their director. His impressive Julius Caesar at MCT proved that he knows how to move and place actors in patterns that visually reflect and enhance what the text is saying. He knows the value of a dramatic pause that gives characters and audience a moment to reflect on what is happening and he can rush the action along when the story requires some pace. He knows how to mix the significant (the past death of a child) with the trivial (a desperate search for a pair of galoshes). It’s a gift he shares with the playwright, who, in the words of Peters’ program notes, “was a master at noting and then dramatically rendering the precious evanescent moments that flit by during the course of a normal day.”
All of which calls for some top-grade acting. Helped by a strong script and clear direction, the MCT cast do a creditable job. There are inevitable differences in levels of experience and training, but the day I saw the play all of them seemed caught up in the job of telling a clear and moving story. Some but not all showed the skill it takes to bring a complex character fully to life. There are no villains and no heroes in The Cherry Orchard. Only a roster of troubled, tragic, funny and vulnerable humans. Every role right down to the cameo of a passing homeless tramp is a tough but worthy acting assignment.
Sarah Albertson is convincing and assured as the volatile and emotional Lyubov. She has a clear understanding of the character’s kaleidoscope of changing moods and emotion and she knows how to portray them convincingly. It’s not her fault that, just physically, she is such a commanding presence that it’s hard to believe she could ever be so confused and feckless in the face of a major threat to her property and assets. Or, when both are lost, would have no better option than to return, weepy but adoring, to the arms of a no-good Parisian gigolo.
Scott Kravitz is anguished but strong as Lopakhin, the estate’s bumbling upwardly mobile ex-peasant in residence. Under the bluster and vaunting ambition he harbors he openly admits that he often is inept and bumbling. Kravitz is particularly effective in portraying Lopakhin’s ecstatic amazement at becoming the unexpected paid-up lord and master of the cherry orchard.
Lyubov’s brother Gayev is often dismissed as a tiresome and garrulous dilettante, so I welcomed David Leach’s decision to make him an irrepressible family show-off, who can’t resist offering lengthy, inflated comments on any passing person or event, including a florid oration in honor of a well-loved chest of drawers located in a corner of the farmhouse nursery.
As Lyubov’s adopted elder daughter Varya, Alie Mac is an exception to the family penchant for dreamy nostalgia. Left behind while her mother and sister traveled Europe, she has become a thorough here-and-now fusspot manager of the family home, the kind of woman who can’t enter a room without plumping cushions, rearranging chairs and straightening pictures on the wall. There’s a nice irony in the way she combines a sincere Orthodox Christian faith and noisy explosions of anger when housemaid Dunyasha (Sequoia Jones) or bookkeeper Yepikhodov (Dave Halper) don’t measure up to her exacting standards. The play builds toward a formal marriage proposal from Lopakhin that will brighten her life and save the family financial crisis. When the key moment arrives, the proposal doesn’t happen in one of the most awkward, tragi-comic sequences Chekhov ever wrote. It’s beautifully choreographed and admirably acted by Mac and Kravitz.
Contrasting with all the domestic pitfalls there is a welcome helping of youthful hope in the prospect of a new and better Russia from Varya’s teenaged sister Anya, play by Jocelyn McMahon-Babalis with a wonderful, youthful radiance marred only by some costuming that makes her look padded and matronly. Main source of her inspiration is Nat Robinson, who does well as the local opinionated student activist Pyotr Trofimov.
Sad to say, two of my favorite Chekhov eccentrics get short shrift. Chekhov creates a retired family governess named Charlotta, still lurching around the house and grounds, chattering like a stand-up comic and playing jokes and parlor tricks. She has always seemed to me to be a cheerful but slightly unsettling loony. Helen Simkin Jara plays the role dressed in a goofy outfit and deftly does the party tricks but she does it with a soft-voiced diffidence that comes across not as comically weird but as somehow apologetic.
Then there is the upstart butler Sasha, so caught up in the glamour of his recent sojourn in Paris with Madame Lyubov that he regards his Russian life and surroundings as hopelessly corny and provincial. Aki’o Nanamura struts and sounds off on cue but with such an underlying aura of amiability that the character seems bland instead of waspish. He only comes into his own with some convincing howls of disappointment at being left behind when Lyubov returns to her ailing lover in Paris in the closing moments of the play.
So there are fits and starts in a few of the acting choices. But the production as a whole moves with an admirable and clear commitment to the shape and meaning of a classic.
It plays at Mountain Community’s theater space on Mill Street in Ben Lomond through December 15th.
Photo by Alie Robinson