All Things Entertaining and Cultural

The Cherry Orchard — People’s Light & Theatre Company

IMG_0233The languid inertia of the Gayev family, all but one of whom lives as lavishly as he or she did in a luxurious past rather than coping with the austere present, is tellingly revealed in Abigail Adams’s gently flowing production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” as delightfully translated by Emily Mann.

Leonid Andreyevich Gayev and his sister, Lyubov Andreyeva Ranevskaya, visiting him from France, are spoiled children of the bourgeois aristocracy, accustomed to comfort and service and the freedom to spend as they like, not only on whatever they desire but as lenders and benefactors. Though they are in such straits, their property, including their treasured cherry orchard, is scheduled for auction a few months after Ranevskaya’s arrival in rural Russia, neither sibling can curtail the generous, reckless habits that have exhausted their mutual fortune, earned by ancestors and not them. Only Ranevskaya’s daughter, Varya, who manages the Gayev estate and keeps its books knows how dire the family’s financial situation is. She can bark and cry and plead for economy all she wants. Her mother and uncle were not raised to skimp, budget, or even think about costs and account balances. Even the ancient valet, Firs, cannot adjust to new conditions. Dressed neatly and handsomely in a long, well brushed black tailcoat, he looks after his employer, Leonid, as if was a boy at school, always admonishing him to wear a coat, remember his gloves, drink less wine, or take some rest. Leonid is nearing 70 if he’s day.

The Gayevs are offered a solution to their fiscal woes. Their neighbor, Yermolai Lopakhin, who grew up on the Gayev estate as the son of one of the family’s serfs, and who has amassed a fortune as a canny businessman, tells Ranevskaya, a favorite of his, she can make all the money she needs for back taxes and mortgages and mad money if she cuts down the cherry orchard, and possibly the house adjacent to it, to build and rent summer cottages for the growing number of city dwellers who long to escape to the country for retreat in the spring and summer.

Lopakhin takes the trouble to calculate all of the logistics, expenses, and projected profits of the bungalows. He is actually generous in offering his salvaging scheme to Ranevskaya because, having the wherewithal to bid for the Gayev holdings and do what he likes with the orchard and the real estate, he could easily go ahead and acquire it all and cut the Gayevs out of everything.

“The Cherry Orchard,” written at the turn of the century when Lenin and other Bolsheviks were beginning to challenge the imperial power of Tsar Nicholas and eschew the democracy represented by Russia’s citizen legislature, the Duma, depicts a group of people for whom time has stood still for decades. They cannot keep up with contemporary upheaval in Russia because they were not trained to attend to anything at all. The Gayevs, as depicted by Adams’s production, are charming and elegant but constitutionally immune to responsibility, social evolution, or reality.

Adams has the Gayevs sail through scenes serenely. Leonid and Ranevskaya hear Lopakhin’s warnings, plans, and entreaties. They are confronted by Varya all the time about their wasteful extravagance. It does no good. The elder Gayevs were raised to be leisurely and to let others take care of petty details such as sustaining the estate, husbanding funds, and managing a household. Confronted with the calamity that might ensue, the Gayevs expect to use their influence with lenders and officials to stave off embarrassment or ruin. Failing that, Ranevskaya’s other daughter, Anya, has an aunt, presumably from her father’s side, who can be asked to come to the family’s rescue.

Nothing is urgent for Leonid and his sister. Nothing frightens them because they optimistically believe that all will sort itself, as it always has. The Gayevs are genteel. It isn’t so much that tending to business is beneath them as they have not been bred or taught to think of it. Leonid, in Russia, has had Varya, and before her, others to keep the estate afloat. Ranevskaya has lived in Paris more than she’s been in Russia, and she seems handy at finding beaux who allow her to live in jolly style in the City of Lights. Far into their middle age, the Gayev siblings have never had to fend for themselves. They don’t know how. They don’t even bring themselves to think about how when they are assured their estate will be sold and their life there will be over. Sentimental regard for the beauty and gracefulness of the cherry orchard renders it impossible for the Gayevs to agree to its demolishment. Since neither Leonid nor Ranevskaya know how their wealth was derived or maintained, they don’t realize that without investment and tending, it’s finite, and that rubles and kopeks accruing to them are dwindling.

Varya understands. So do her sister, Anya, and adopted sister, Dunyasha, but no will listen to her. Her mother and uncle are genteel while she loses her temper at her family’s blindness and helplessness. Anya and Dunyasha, both fairly inconsequential in this production, agree eith Varya but do and say nothing significant to support her. Lopakhin’s offer to help is barely considered. Losing the cherry orchard seems too great a price to pay for solvency. And think of all those middle class renters who will share the Gayevs’ space during the finest weather! Unfathomable!

You have a family that hears the truth but chooses to be only vaguely cognizant of it. Meanwhile, in Adams’s production , they ramble on charmingly, giving one friend the money he begs to pay his mortgage while they don’t have funds enough for their own, keeping a large retinue of people as their guests, and holding festive, expensive parties and social gatherings that belie their financial status but draw only D-List guests.

The Gayevs are plain incorrigible. As Adams and her company depict, they just can’t stop being grand while they are on the brink of being dispossessed and destitute.

Adams and Mann both appreciate Chekhov’s subtleties. Mann’s script is airy and animated, musical in tone but conscientiously in keeping with the rhythms and diction with which actual people, as opposed to literary characters, speak. You never hear the vaulted language, or the “dear, dear Lyubovs” that make parodies of Chekhov so naughtily accurate. In Mann’s translation, the characters express themselves naturally, so you feel that you are watching flesh-and-blood people instead of symbols or types. Mary McDonnell, as Ranevskaya, is particularly good at being gracious and kind to everyone and speaking to all in vernacular and not in the stunted literary speech that plagued Chekhovian adaptations, and their productions, for most of the last century.

The pace of Adams’s production suggests a long, leisurely passage of time. The Gayevs are little bothered with pressing matters, even when their shelter and livelihood is imminently threatened. Adams captures the seeming inability of the Gayevs to grasp, let alone alter, their fate. They simply go on as they always have. Varya wringing her hands, or Lopakhin speaking plainly, has no effect on them. They will meander unharried and unhurried through their days, They’re not procrastinators because they have little notion anything has be done. Adams deliberately stresses the family’s inaction. The Gayevs are not so much lazy or lethargic as they languorous. They amble on, letting time pass until, look here, the day for the auction has come, and all Leonid and Ranevskaya have managed to do is secure a 15,000 ruble letter of credit for a proceeding that will open with a 30,000 ruble bid.

The easygoing approach Adams chooses acquaints you well with Chekhov’s characters. It also underscores the comme il faut behavior of the Gayevs. The audience comprehends they are fiddling while their dacha burns. In this production, the family deserves their fate. Aside from Varya, they barely manage to worry about it. Forget acting to combat it. The Gayevs are sympathetic only in their almost innocent inability to know what to do. As Adams shows them, you can’t be totally sad for them because they make and fail to rectify their own problem.

Pete Pryor’s portrayal of Lopakhin also mitigates our feelings towards the Gayevs. Pryor does not play the former slave’s son as a crass boor. He is plain-spoken, and he makes his proposal in no uncertain terms, but his clothes and his manners shows he is a man of the world and not a bumpkin who has become rich without acquiring the class or articulateness his money can buy.

Lopakhin is, after all, raised on the Gayev estate and has an affection for Ranevskaya, who noticed his penchant for industry and treated him well. You don’t have an uncaring businessman on stage, one who actually relishes the prospect of acquiring the deed to the Gayev land for his own sake or his own greed. You have a parvenu gentleman, who would like to help the family, not only Ranevskaya but Varya, with whom he shares affectionate feelings.

One of the small heartbreaks the audience experiences regarding a character in this production is Lopakhin’s inability to express his love to Varya and ask her to be his bride, which she is eagerly willing to be. Lopakhin often comes close to proposing, but something always stops him before he can get the crucial words out. Pryor plays Lopakhin’s hesitation well, even conveying that he realizes he should ask Varya to marry him but seems to be constitutionally inhibited from doing so. Teri Lamm, as Varya, is also excellent in the would-be proposal scene, not knowing where to look or whether to be stoic, amused, or tearful. When provided time to be alone, she gives in to the tears.

Adams’s production moves smoothly. It almost glides. It’s best at recording the roll of one day into another at the Gayev estate and in depicting the relationship between characters and their interaction between one another. Adams gives each character his or her due. Each has a trait by which he or she can be known, and each has a chance, in Mann’s adaptation, to tell his or her part of the story.

Most of the Gayev retinue is like Leonid and Ranevskaya. They are country folk, once well-heeled, who tend to think back to the age that has been instead of the one to come. Let alone the now they have to survive. Each of them has the same relaxed, carefree, fate-will-take-care-of-me manner as Leonid and his sister. If someone wants money, he asks for it instead of conceiving a way to earn it. You see the friends don’t take stock of the Gayev’s financial situation either. Others are content to take shelter and meals from the Gayevs. There’s Trofimov, the perpetual student and tutor, Yepikhodov, a neighbor who is congenitally injury prone, Pishchik, who keeps things lively but hang around like an Ibsen character for companionship, and to cadge hundreds of rubles from the susceptible Ranevskaya, and Yasha, a dandy who followed Ranevskaya to and from Paris and who, though a peasant by birth, thinks all things Russian, and all people Russian, are unsophisticated and beneath him. Yasha cannot wait until an occasion comes that will take him back West to the boulevard life he relishes.

The calm, unperturbed nature of the group, and their habitual way of behaving, adds to evenness of Adams’s staging. The result has its effect and is pleasing. One certainly knows all that going on, where everyone stands, and who matters and who doesn’t, but the lifelike casualness comes at the expense of high drama or deep intensity.

You note all that is happening. You shake your head and wonder a lot at the shrugging come-what-may attitude of Ranevskaya and her entourage. You wish for better things for Varya. But, in general, you are as relaxed as one of the characters, as opposed to being moved or affected by what you see.

The fine impression Adams’s production makes is real. Several performances are exceptional. The story is clear and comfortable to watch. But there a few levels and no dash. Comedy reigns over pathos in this production. We laugh more at the Yepikhodov’s pratfalls or Pishchik’s constant requests for loans more than we fret about the Gayevs’ fate or feel much urge to spur them on and motivate them to preserve what they have or at least embrace Lopakhin’s plan, especially since Pryor makes Lopakhin so acceptable, palatable, and serviceable in his friendship.

You enjoy this “Cherry Orchard” from a distance. The production invites you to watch it, but it doesn’t quite let you in. Unlike the stationmaster and the postman, you are not part of the party at the Gayev home, only a witness to it. A satisfied witness. A fulfilled witness. But a benign witness nonetheless.

Though one’s emotion is not stirred, and thoughts are attuned to the action of the moment rather than lingering past the final curtain, Adams did a fine job with this show, and her cast is to be uniformly admired.

Mary McDonnell brings a lot of heart to Ranevskaya. We see the generosity and the merriment in the woman, more worldly than her brother and neighbors yet congenial and kindly.

Perhaps too kindly. McDonnell easily conveys how little Ranevskaya can stand to watch anyone suffer over something as petty as 300 rubles for this or that. She will be practical for 20 seconds, pout for five, and consent to a loan or gift the next instant. McDonnell gives the woman a maternal streak that all includes all around her as her children. She’s a natural patron, the mistress of the manor who feels as though she must care for the community that surrounds her. At least when she in Russia.

Ranevskaya may not have a pragmatic bent, but she is wonderful company and has true regard for everyone in her circle. McDonnell captures the woman who can amuse the drawing rooms of Paris while endowing Ranevskaya with an Everywoman side that makes her want to share her gaiety and contentedness in everyday life.

McDonnell’s is a placid but sociable Ranevskaya that dominates the People’s Light stage. While you don’t become crestfallen because Ranevskaya is about to lose all, the personality McDonnell gives her makes you wish for a deus ex machina or some ending that allows her to keep what she has. In a way, such a rescue comes when Ranevskaya receives the telegram summoning her back to Paris and une belle vie dans le temps de la belle epoque (which is also ending). You also get the sense Lopakhin will help her.

McDonnell draws you to her, as Ranevskaya draws the characters in her midst. She radiates that much warmth.

Pete Pryor infuses the air with needed energy as Lopakhin, the only person on stage who seems capable of doing a day’s work or getting anything accomplished.

Lopakhin is often portrayed as being one step above a peasant, a coarse man who became rich by his own cunning but who cannot shed the meanness of his roots as a serf’s son.

Pryor eschews that roughness. He portrays Lopakhin as a go-getter, an alert and efficient man who always has his eye on what’s next and a bid in to be a part of it. Rather than one who only feels sorry for Ranevskaya, Pryor’s Lopakhin arrives with a will to relieve this woman he regards as a friend and parent figure from any misery the loss of her property may cause her. Far from being the kind of character who motivates by threatening to take the land the Gayevs live on because he can, Pryor’s Lopakhin offers to be a partner, a savior of sorts who will spare Ranevskaya the loss of everything, and supply her with new revenue, if she will only comprehend and approve his idea about the cherry orchard.

Lopakhin is the lone realist among a household of romantics. Adams and Pryor are right to keep Lopakhin from being a villain. It makes it more telling, and disheartening, when the Gayevs reject a sincerely offered way out, as opposed to seeing them bullied by Lopakhin or other seekers of their land as they wallow in indifference and inaction.

Graham Smith is outstanding as Firs, to whom he wittily gives more vigor than is customary.

Firs is 87, and is supposed to be forgetful, but Smith endows him dignity and a purpose. It’s more ironic and more telling when a man who seems to have more of his wits than not talks about regretting the emancipation of serfs and being glad he could stay on with the Gayevs as Leonid’s valet.

Smith’s timing is precise as he chides Leonid for some slight or inattention to manners. It is just as keen when Firs grouses at the lack of standards the current residents of the Gayev estate display in comparison to past generations.

Smith’s is a performance worthy of award nominations. He is a Firs for whom you can feel sympathy while admiring his persistence and consistency.

Peter DeLaurier is one stunning actor. He can take any character and endow him with traits that individualize him and make him stand out. Pishchik is often a figure only remembered for his constant neediness and appeals for loans. DeLaurier turns him into a raconteur, a pleasant and affable companion who brightens the setting and provides entertainment and hail-fellow-well-met spirit.

David Straithairn projects youthfulness as Leonid, a handsome man about town who attempts to call on old ties to settle his family’s problems. Leonid is a proud country gentleman who has enjoyed some career in affairs but who prefers the leisure afforded by a billiard cue, some brandy, and a good cigar. Straithairn is adept at sneaking in all of Leonid’s “yellow ball in the left pocket”  asides. His boyishness comes out in his relationship with Firs, who he dismisses like a lad of school age when the elderly valet tries to guide him or scolds him for going into the winter chill without his fur overcoat.

Luigi Sottile is not on stage that often as Yasha, but he makes an impression each time he appears by being so obviously bored with and disapproving of the ways of Russia. Sottile affects an impenetrable haughtiness and carries himself with an air of being misplaced and not too happy about it. Yasha’s contempt also comes out in the way Sottile reads his lines. He finds comedy in his character while portraying his serious, critical side.

Andrew Kane is properly clumsy as the accident waiting to happen, Yepikhodov. That clumsiness extends to his character’s wooing of Anya, who might agree to a relationship if Yepikhodov didn’t always break a dish or cause some disruption every time they begin to speak personally.  Sanjit De Silva brings an entertaining tongue-in-cheek style to Trofimov. He especially enjoys his chances to tease Varya about her feelings for Lopakhin. Mary Elizabeth Scallen has a few showy moments as Carlotta.

Teri Lamm may make Varya the one character you want to hug and comfort.

Varya warns and scolds, but she may as well be shouting from a window into the wilderness. As keeper of the books, she is all too aware the Gayevs are living on the thinnest of security, credit obligations exceeding cash on hand. Lamm practically shrieks her disapproval at Ranevskaya’s unbridled spending. She cries, wrings her hands, and goes into fits of worry or fury to no avail. No one pays attention to her pleas for thrift and common sense. No one tends to her heart either.

Lamm is clever to give Varya a light side as well, She can participate amiably at gatherings and be civil to all who come to the Gayev house, but eventually Varya will be the one to realize the Gayevs cannot afford to be so kind or convivial.

Lamm tends to play Varya as more suddenly and overtly emotional than anyone else on stage, but her extremes of frustration work in this production.

Olivia Mell is a fine helper to Varya as Anya, but the role does not take much importance in this production. Nor does that of Dunyasha, but Claire Inie-Richards plays her admirably and with spunk.

Melissa Dunphy impressed mightily as an actress earlier this season in “iHamlet” for the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre. She is equally admirable as a composer and musician, her violin compositions for this production being fitting, evocative, and beautifully played. Samantha Bellomo’s choreography gave a lift to the production and showed the Gayev party to be festive and lively.

Tony Straiges designed a lovely set that lets you see an upstage waterside pier looming behind a well-appointed drawing room. Marla Jurglanis’s costumes, especially for Firs, were of their usual excellence. Dennis Parichy’s lighting enhanced the dance scenes that enliven a party the Gayevs throw on the day their estate goes up for auction.

“The Cherry Orchard” runs through Sunday, March 8, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (on Route 401 just north of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (March 3), Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No matinee is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, March 7. No performance is set for Friday, March 6. Tickets range from $68 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting Kudos to People’s Light on its excellent new logo, which brings out the brightness and variety of the company.





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