Cherry Blossoms 

Chekhov as relevant as ever

Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, like the best historical works, is virtually timeless. Written 15 years before the Socialist Revolution in Russia, and now produced at TheatreWorks almost 100 years after its first performance, it remains fresh, interesting and captivating.

The play takes place on a crumbling Russian estate around the turn of last century. Liubov Andreyevna has just been fetched from Paris and a disastrous love affair by her beautiful young daughter, Anya. Tending the home fires is her older daughter, Varya, to whom has fallen the burden of managing the estate and its crushing debt. Liubov, brought up in the old aristocratic traditions of grander times, is unable to shake free of her nostalgia for the old days and endorse the scheme brought forth by a former serf and now-successful businessman Lopakhin: to sell off the ancient cherry orchard to develop summer dachas for the nascent middle class.

Largely a play about the rapidly changing roles in Russian society, Chekhov examines the relations within the whole spectrum of social classes, from peasant to aristocrat.

This TheatreWorks production is a lovely contrast in the lush and the spare. For example, the set is rarely more than the few pieces of furniture explicitly referenced in the characters' lines. Lighting designer Scott Clyve beautifully augments this austere design with atmospheric and directed lighting that work perfectly with the demands of theater-in-the-round. The few grisaille backdrop paintings of cherry trees are so well executed and lit that they appear to be bas-relief.

Dominating this bare setting is the elaborately costumed Liubov, every inch a Victorian matron with gathers, bustles and layers of lace. Leah Chandler-Mills has a commanding, generous presence, tinged with a slight sense of the comedic. She is contrasted by Varya who, as played by Laura Tesman, is as plain as a nun, anxious, worried and parsimonious. Her romantic hopes are pinned on Lopakhin (Len Matheo), a man decisive in everything but love. These actors form the core of the company, and all do a fine job of ensemble acting, playing off of the energies and strengths of the others. The three are ably supported by a strong cast including Jim Jackson as the blustery uncle and Bob Pinney as the ancient butler.

Worth particular mention is the young scholar Petya (Kelly Walters) who delivers his lines and monologues with the barely subsumed passion of the ideologue. Lenin may not have yet taken power when this was written, but Walters makes it clear that he is just around the corner.

If TheatreWorks' production of The Cherry Orchard suffers from anything, it is a problem that is inherent in much historical theater -- the mode of the play itself can be at odds with the diction and posture of several of the actors themselves. This is particularly true in this translation, which seems to be an odd mixture of the old world ("my darling, my dear sweet darling sister"), and the contemporary ("Where are the day-care centers, the literacy programs?").

Still, this is a small rupture in an otherwise complete vision of Chekhov's venerable play. The last production of TheatreWorks in the Dwire Theater before it moves to its new digs, The Cherry Orchard is a fitting finale for a distinguished theater company.

-- Andrea Lucard


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