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“The Cherry Orchard” Falls Down

Chekhov’s last play marks the end of an era at Williamstown (through August 22, 2004)

Anton Chekhov called his often heartbreaking plays as “comedies,” partly because he didn’t want them performed as high-strung melodramas and partly because they’re not tragedies. His characters are not heroic figures crushed by fate and tragic flaws, but ordinary (if sometimes blue-blooded) people trapped in almost laughably hopeless circumstances and unwilling or unable to see their way out.

Director Michael Greif apparently picked up on Chekhov’s label and decided to get as many laughs as possible out of Paul Schmidt’s colloquial translation of “The Cherry Orchard.” This certainly avoids the conventional gloomy treatment that has turned so many people off the great Russian dramatist. (As Ira Gershwin put it in his lyric to “But Not for Me,” “I’ve found more clouds of gray / Than any Russian play / Could guarantee.”) But the insistent jokiness turns the characters hollow and, together with some very odd set choices, betrays the heart of the play.

Chekhov’s last work sounds all the themes that run through his mournful “comedies”—loss and longing, missed opportunities, wasted time and talent, coupled with a wistful faith in a better future. Here the remnants of a genteel family stand on the verge of losing their country estate, with its magnificent cherry orchard, because they can’t make the mortgage payments.

Written, prophetically enough, a year before the rebellion of 1905, which shook the semi-feudal society to its foundations and prepared the ground for the Russian Revolution of 1917-18, “The Cherry Orchard” is an elegy for an obsolete way of life as it is shouldered aside by harsh new realities. It’s very much of its time, but the plot motif of land speculation and urban sprawl resonates pretty loudly today.

The production’s emphasis on humor inadvertently serves to point up the fact that most of the characters are essentially representations of social circumstances and/or points of view. Liubov Ranyesvskaya (Linda Emond), the matriarch of the Gayev family, is a sentimental spendthrift, indulging in lavish parties and impulsive gifts as if there were no tomorrow—which, in fact, there isn’t.

Her would-be savior is Lopakhin, the self-made son of a serf, an upwardly mobile and ravenously ambitious entrepreneur who wants to dissolve her debts by cutting down the orchard and developing the land into summer cottages for city folks. This is the character the play turns on, and in this production, the one who trips it up.

The first scene is a whirl of comings and goings, and the director does a pretty good job of establishing the characters’ relationships and identities—no small task with a dozen people most of whom, in the Russian manner, have three or four names. But after a good start the thing comes apart. The progression of almost cinematic little vignettes as characters come together and drift off gets both choppier and more languid.

The tangible manifestation of Greif’s shaky grip on the material is Alan Moyer’s flexible, impressionistic set, which is a hodgepodge of mixed-message symbols. For a start, the cherry orchard itself is represented by an impressively realistic standing of blossoming trees wheeled onstage in a train of enormous planter boxes—the beloved grove brought low even before the axes start to swing.

Then there’s the scene that takes place in an idyllic corner of the estate—with railroad tracks running right across the stage beside a utility pole, making it seem like the family is disporting itself next to a freight yard. (When a tramp walks past along the rail line and inquires, “Is this the way to the station?” it’s hard to stifle a “Duh, yeah.”) Maybe this, too, is supposed to foreshadow of what’s in store for the old place, but it makes no sense.

But the production’s fatal weakness is human. Ritchie Coster’s performance as Lopakhin is truly bizarre. I guess he’s trying to show the man’s discomfort in his gentlemen’s garments and the adopted persona that goes with them, but his incessant twitching makes you think he’s got itching powder in his underwear. And his accent, a kind of cross between London and Jersey, sounds like a speech impediment.

Thankfully, the rest of the cast doesn’t seem put off by this behavior, and for the most part they acquit themselves well. I particularly warmed to Linda Emond’s obtuse grandeur as Liubov, Michelle Williams’ gritty despair as her long-suffering stepdaughter Varya, Reed Birney’s fatuous insouciance as Liubov’s ne’er-do-well brother, and Chris Messina’s wide-eyed intensity as the idealistic student Trofimov.

The play’s end-of-an-era theme contributed to its choice as the final production before Williamstown’s Memorial Theatre, the festival’s home for 50 years, undergoes renovation as part of Williams College’s new $50-million performing arts center. Maybe this production is a more fitting farewell to the old place than was intended: a doomed structure whose inhabitants refuse to recognize they’re headed in the wrong direction.

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