For those who have everything, time becomes their most precious commodity. But to be fair, for those who have less than everything, time is still their most precious commodity, they simply might not realize this. Time is relative, time waits for no man, time is cruel, time is kind, time is wasted, time is spent, time is saved, time is used.We speak of time as thought it is a finite quantity, rather than an infinite concept we have chopped into human shaped-units which help us understand our lives in manageable ways, like something we can keep in our pockets and take out for a rainy day. It is only when the boundaries of our lives are clearly and inexorably defined that time become a finite quality to us, that it loses its elasticity and becomes something rigid, that we know it as a true clock, winding down to one stopping point.
For almost half of his life, Anton Chekhov was aware that he was dying. He suffered his first lung hemorrhage at the age of 24 and by the time The Seagull was produced in 1896 he could no longer ignore the implications of his disease. He was a doctor, after all, and he had treated countless cases similar to his own. Before the discovery of penicillin there was no cure for consumption, which we now know as tuberculosis, and Chekhov’s lungs slowly deteriorated until the weak tissue could stand no more dilapidation and simple gave out. Tuberculosis is a painful way to die, and an equally painful way to live, but Chekhov spent twenty years with his disease as his constant companion, a friend who enjoyed hounding his steps and reminding him of his inevitable future with frequent coughing spells and lung hemorrhages. He wrote his four major plays while living under the shadow of death, and none more so than The Cherry Orchard, which was completed the year he died.
And if you consider the state of mind of the author when he wrote it, many things about this play become blindingly clear. In the second act of the play a character declares, quite offhandedly, that the sun, ladies and gentleman, has set. This could be, of course, a simple observation, but like so many moments in this drama, it is also a statement that drops through the fragile facade of the story like a stone, plummeting into depths that none of the characters onstage are interested in exploring. It’s what makes this play so real, so vital as a drama, that underneath its surface lay the anxieties and fears of life, of mortality, of time itself, which, dulled as they are by the human condition, bubble up at the strangest and most wonderful of moments, painting a landscape of desperate people whose oddest quality is that they neither acknowledge nor accept that desperation. It is this quality that most reflects life as we know it, that people fight against reality with every drop of strength that they have, or that when they do see what is happening within their lives they turn out to be the people we like least, even if we understand them the most.
But its difficult to do a play like The Cherry Orchard, with its dual weight and lightness, with its characters who live both in the same and wildly different worlds. It is a play on the precipice of things, a play that marks the threshold of things in Russia, and within Chekhov’s own life. It is a play of many characters, each of whom revolves around their own personal orbit, with a surreal sound scape reminding the audience just how surreal the reality of Chekhov really is (as of course Beckett called Chekhov the first surrealist and he, of all people, should know). It’s easy to neglect some part of this world, or to find that the play really feels like many worlds, unconnected and blind to each other. And that’s the real problem facing People’s Light and Theatre Company’s ambitious and often impressive production of The Cherry Orchard which, as engaging as it can be moment to moment, fails to feel like one play, one world, and everyone’s story.
The plot of the play is perilously simple, in fact, its the kind of plot that gives Russian theater a bad name in that very little happens. An estate is in trouble (the freeing of the serfs in 1861 wasn’t all that helpful for Russian aristocrats and their massive feudal manors; you really never hear about the real victims of serfdom, do you?) and it’s owner, Lyubov Andreyenva Ranevskaya (played by the luminously magnificent Mary McDonnell) has neglected it through self-absorption and a delicate constitution ill-bred for the practicalities of life. While her family, including brother Leonid (a stellar and affecting David Strathairn), daughters Varya (the excellent Teri Lamm) and Anya (a charming Olivia Mell), struggle to make ends meet and cope with their plummeting finances, Madame Ranevskaya has been living in Paris, lost in her torrid love affair with a man never seen on stage. She is begged to return by her family before the play begins, and the first act starts with the servants (personified by Dunyasha, who is played by Claire Inie-Richards with a violently shrill deadpan that seems to belong more in a French farce than a Russian drama) eagerly anticipating the return of the mistress, who must finally confront the realities of their financial distress, as articulated by rags-to-riches businessman Lopakhin (Pete Pryor) whose serfdom-roots make him both eager for aristocratic approval and desperate to prove himself beyond it . Or must she? Because the rest of the play has Madame Ranevskya doing everything but dealing with the problem at hand.
Simply put, the family and the estate are out of money. There is zero, zlitch, nada left. It doesn’t matter what language is used, the old fortunes have all been spent and Ranevskaya’s mind is not built for such petty matters such as the loss of her family home. Or rather, she can understand the loss but not the mechanisms in place that would allow her to keep it. Lopakhin, who loves her with a kind of childlike-devotion and a rather adult obsession, offers her a solution to her problems, cut down the cherry orchard and sell the land for summer cottages, homes for pleasure seekers who need a place for a few months, for the new Russians, made mobile by money, by industry, by change. He is speaking the wrong language, however, as she does not understand change, change is not her way. Instead, she keeps insisting with joy that the people around her “haven’t changed at all”, although it is never sure who she is reassuring more, the listener or herself. Lopakhin is eager to usher her into the future, but for Ranevskya the future needs only to continue in the same manner as the past. She will love a man who hurts her, she will treat her children like dolls, she will charm the world around her, she will throw money around like a child throws leaves in the air and she will treasure her memories of the cherry orchard regardless of its actual existence. It will all remain the same for her, solid in her mind like an insect caught in amber, and no amount of reality can interfere with her own version of the world.
And so she lets the estate go, because she already has, years ago, for her, this is a funeral, not a fight. And Lopakhin buys it, triumphant but ultimately unfulfilled, and the family moves on, leaving their home for their various destinations and leaving behind nothing that they care about. And Lopakhin doesn’t marry Varya despite everyone’s urging because as it turns out not all women are completely interchangeable, and Anya strolls into the sunset with her brother’s old tutor/newly reborn revolutionary, Trofimov, (played by Sanjit De Silva with such apathy and listlessness that you almost wish it was 1917 already). There are casualties, of course, like the aforementioned Dunyasha, who may, horror of horrors, have to end up married to the boring and pedantic Yepikhodov (Andrew Kane, who apparently thought this was a madcap comedy) as her crush Yasha (a delightfully superior Luigi Sottile) leaves with Ranevskaya. Or the governess, Charlotta (played gamely by Mary Elizabeth Scallen who seems cheerfully oblivious to how oddly directed she has been) who now has no charge, no country and no one to talk to. But willingly or not, they all move on in the end except, of course, Firs, the butler, magnificently played by Graham Smith, who dies with the house as all truly loyal Russian servants do. (I’m not giving anything away here, this play is over one hundred years old.)
Whatever you think of the play itself, it’s message is clear only in the fact that it has no distinct message. It’s only people, living their lives, making the same mistakes over and over again until the tension of life snaps their strings and they float on, unencumbered by anything but memories. Chekhov includes that very stage direction in the play, which is a noisy one both in its characters and in its world. Orchestras play, beggars beg, trees are chopped down with abandon, pipers play in the distance and strings snap. Most of these stage directors occur without feeling directly related to any one thing in the play itself, as if the story lives in a kind of randomized wonderland. It works the way a dream works, or the way a child sees the world, large and loud and bright and bitter. Or at least, it has the potential to do so. And at times, this production does, feeling full to bursting with humanity. But more often than not this production feels like a deflating balloon, unsure whether it’s going to float or sink, full of air that is fast escaping and not all that exciting to watch.
One of the issues could of course, be, the world of the play as established by director Abigail Adams and her design team. For a play about a house, it seems rather strange that set designer Tony Straiges has failed to provide the audience with one. Instead we get a confusing collection of columns and cornices with bare branches dipping into the room from above. Just in case you weren’t aware that an orchard is a place that trees live, one supposes. The first act opens with a jumble of toys that clearly no child has ever played with, in a room that no one seems to feel comfortable in. For all of the discussion of how wonderful it is to be home, the sheer lack of home-ness in the set belies those statements, giving the first act an air of artificiality that extends into the work of the actors. It almost feels like the production decided to favor bold archetypes rather than reality, so this means house, this means moon (a wooden moon hanging from strings, if you must know), this means orchard, this means luggage. More successful are the transitions in the second and third acts, outside the house and inside to a backroom of the party, but still, its little wonder these people let their ancestral home go so easily if it’s going to be this bare and bald and adored solely with cheap lace curtains.
Dennis Parichy’s lighting design isn’t all that much better, with effects galore but little focus, leaving the eyes of the audience exhausted with straining to see the actors through all of the manipulated light. Melissa Dunphy’s sound design is downright strange, with unintelligible sounds twanging through the production, culminating in a groaning car-dying sound instead of Chekhov’s suggested string snap and tree’s being chopped down. Obviously there is nothing wrong with deviating from stage directions, but it would be nice to know what that deviation was meant to be. And as for Marla J. Jurglanis’ costumes, well, they seem to have drawn deeply from mid to late Edwardian images which feels deeply inappropriate to the year of the play, 1904, a time of transition from late Victorian to early Edwardian fashion which was still, in Paris particularly, under the thrall of Charles Worth, the designer who dominated the scene and ensured that the Victorian silhouette held on for years after the Queen’s death. It also feels inappropriate to the world of these people, and the country in which the play takes place. Yes, Madame Ranevskaya might have just returned from Paris with the latest fashions, which still pre-date those of the production by at least a decade, but clothing doesn’t change all at once, it’s generational, it’s cultural, it’s dependent on materials available and social mores. Russia had its own fashion culture, heavily copied from Paris, yes, but also based on it’s own standards of modesty and class. No servant should be dressing in the same manner of their master, as is the case with Dunyasha’s blouse and skirt ensemble which not only mirror Anya’s to an alarming degree but look like something out of the second season of Downtown Abby. One may say that this matters little, but in a world that lives on the foundations of status and hierarchy it would matter to the people within it to differentiate themselves, and the actors should be allowed that for themselves, and for the sake of the audience. From the men’s suits to the women’s winter coats there are so many anachronisms in this costume palette, some of which are a few years off, some of which are over a century off, that they almost seem deliberate, except that nothing else about the production supports this idea. It is absolutely in the world of the play to insert subtle modernization and the anxiety change represents, but seeing Lopakhin in a three-piece suit seems more jarring than meaningful.
Of course, the unevenness of the production also lies in Adams’ direction, which seems to have placed most of these characters in several different plays. Kane’s Yepikhodov and Inie-Richard’s Dunyasha are in some kind of slapstick comedy without a much-needed laugh track, witnessed only by Sotille’s Yasha who endevors to be a real person in a room full of caricatures, while Mell’s Anya and De Silva’s Trofimov are in a romantic comedy you wouldn’t see in theaters but might watch if it was playing on USA at the gym. Scallen’s Charlotta is trapped in a horrifying fun house with no one having much fun at all (the choices made with this character are, one assumes, deeply well-intentioned, but have resulted in something completely unintelligible and while Scallen attacks it bravely, one must hope that she is having a good time, as she is the only one) , while Lamm’s Varya suffers alone in a serious mortgage melodrama with no hero and many villains, with occasional visits from Peter DeLaurier’s harmlessly comic Boris Simeonov-Pishchik who adds little but detracts nothing.
Perhaps, to be fair, all of these actors suffer in comparison to the astounding and mesmerizing trio of McDonnell’s Ranevskaya, Strathairn’s Leonid and Smith’s Firs. These three actors make this production worth watching if for nothing more than the moments of sheer life that they carve out of everything else happening on stage. McDonnell is magnificent, charming even as she says terrible things, sympathetic even as she makes the worst of all decisions or none at all, and heartbreaking when she recounts her life, her loves, and her pain. She plays a character that is so easy to hate with so much love that the audience cannot help but love her too, and it is clear why Strathairn’s bumbling and sweet Leonid is devoted to her despite the fact that she has lost their birthright and their home. The bond the two of them have onstage makes the empty set seem like a real house for a few minutes, with real people living in it. And when Smith’s Firs enters the mix it is simply a wonderful play, with past and present seamlessly bending, with humor, with heart and with tragedy woven into even the most banal of lines. Initially, Pryor’s Lopakhin can’t keep up, and he rushes through the first act in an artificial bray with a glaze in his eyes and an emptiness in his offers to help. But once he enters in the second act, Pryor’s early transgressions can be forgiven, for he is brawny, victorious, drunk and powerful. He does far better as the villain of this piece, and it’s a shame that he can’t quite master the other side of Lopakhin, causing the character’s need to be loved and to be approved of to be muted and diminished by his need to vindicate. Still, the quartet end the play beautifully, and if this were a story featuring only those four actors, with Pryor used sparingly, it would be a completely absorbing drama. But it’s not that kind of play, and it’s a shame that the totality of the production is not nearly as moving as some of the actors within it.
It isn’t easy to produce Chekhov well; indeed, to produce any ensemble drama well, let alone one of this scale, and People’s Light and Theater company is to be saluted for its ambition and it’s commitment to working on shows like this, it’s attempts to build these worlds and see what comes of them. Sometimes one wonders why people try at all, when it’s so difficult to make these stories work, to juggle all of the story lines and characters and make sure each of them lives in their own story and contributes to the larger world. Perhaps they try because these plays are Ahab’s white whale, impossible not to attempt to capture despite their danger, because their allure, their mysteries and their layers are intoxicating and never-ending. You could talk about a play like this one for hours and still not understand all of the things that it is saying. You could see a thousand productions of it and never see the same moment the same way twice. So whatever else this production is, the mere fact that it exists means that it’s worth seeing, because it’s never a waste of time to see people wrestle with this story, no matter how much time the characters onstage feel like they have wasted.