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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 29, 2000. All rights reserved.
Cherry Orchard in Spring
Like all great plays with universal themes, Anton
Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard" speaks to each new generation
in a very personal way. For all great actors, the central role of
Lyubov Ranevskaya remains high on their list of coveted roles. Jane
Alexander, a lauded actor of both stage and screen and former chairman
of the National Endowment for the Arts, is playing Ranevskaya for
the McCarter Theater in a production newly adapted and directed by
the theater’s artistic director Emily Mann. If Mann has succeeded,
we will see new life breathed into the Old World, and a clearer vision
of Russian aristocracy.
"The Cherry Orchard," which opens Friday, March 31, and runs
through Sunday, April 16, also stars Avery Brooks as Lopakhin, John
Glover as Gayev, and Barbara Sukowa as Carlotta. Also featured: Rob
Campbell and Roger Robinson, with Caroline Clay, Anne Dudek, Glenn
Fleshler, Kate Goehring, Jefferson Mays, and Allen Swift completing
the ensemble. The production replaces the originally announced world
premiere of Cormac McCarthy’s "The Stonemason," a play about
four generations of an African-American family in Kentucky. "McCarter’s
decision to postpone was mutually agreed upon by Emily Mann and Cormac
McCarthy, who felt the play could benefit from further development,"
says a McCarter spokesperson. "Given McCarthy’s rigorous writing
schedule, they did not feel he could complete the necessary work in
time for this season."
When I tell Alexander that I can’t think of anyone I would like to
see more in the coveted role of Madame Ranevskaya, she says, "I’m
here because of Emily." She then adds, "I’m glad I’m doing
it at this time of my life and not 10 years earlier. Emily has made
me feel that I’m in the right place at the right time. Ever since
I was a teenager, I had a list of parts I wanted to play in my life
and I’m getting down to the end."
Letting go of the old ways to prepare for the new is a state of consciousness
that has plagued individuals since Eden. This, the final play of Chekhov,
focuses on the cultural and economic changes that devastate the household
of Madame Ranevskaya as she whirls and waltzes through a disappearing
universe. Tossing money and charm about like rose petals at a wedding,
Ranevskaya equates the delusions of our day with those in her own.
She refuses to allow her estate to be turned into a summer colony,
and is unable to see that her squandering and extravagances are destroying
The role has always been considered a challenge. I ask Alexander if
she was just a little intimidated by the role played by such dramatic
divas as Alla Nazimova, Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy, Kim Stanley, Irene
Worth, and Olympia Dukakis — to name but a few.
"The interesting thing about Ranevskaya is that she appears as
just one member of an ensemble. As such, one is more likely to remember
a great production of a Chekhov play such as `The Cherry Orchard,’
rather than one particular performance," replies Alexander, who
remembers one memorable production in which she played Irina in "The
Three Sisters" at the Arena Stage in Washington. "I really
should have played Masha, I wasn’t really right for Irina," she
says through her laughter, ruefully adding, "and now I’ll never
get to play Nina in `The Seagull.’ As opposed to now, I always felt
that I was never in the right place at the right time. I’ve known
Emily for years but I’ve never worked with her before. So when she
called and said I want to you play Ranevskaya, I said yes."
Resumes often tell a lot, if not everything, about an actor’s career.
Since Alexander’s resume is notable for its wealth of Shakespeare,
Ibsen, Williams, Pinter, Shaw, Coward, and O’Neill, I ask Alexander
if her many high-toned credits were there by her own design, or had
agents, directors and the like tended not to see her playing trailer
trash in a sleazy pot-boiler? Alexander laughs aloud, happy to tell
me that "I produced and starred in a small film called `Square
Dance’ (1984). It was Winona Ryder’s first film, and I was Texas trash."
"When I was a young actress I was never an ingenue, so I had to
wait a long time to get the leading roles. Instead of staying in New
York and waiting for the big break I went out of town to work in regional
Alexander was born in Boston on October 28, 1939, the
daughter of Thomas B. Quigley, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine
pioneer, and Ruth Pearson, a nurse specializing in neurosurgery. Her
grandfather, Daniel Quigley, was the personal physician to Buffalo
Bill Cody in North Platte, Nebraska. Alexander is a graduate of Sarah
Lawrence College and the University of Edinburgh.
At Washington’s Arena stage Alexander performed in 15 plays that culminated
with "The Great White Hope," directed by her husband-to-be,
Edwin Sherin. It was that play, starring James Earl Jones as fighter
Jack Jefferson, that earned Alexander her Tony Award for Best Actress
in 1968, when the play moved to Broadway. In it, Alexander played
Jefferson’s mistress, the part she recreated in the film version.
Thirty-two years later, Sherin is still directing Alexander. Their
most recent collaboration: A recent two-hour special of "Law and
Order." No stranger to television, Alexander has given memorable
performances in "Playing for Time," (Emmy), "Eleanor and
Franklin" (Emmy nomination), and "The White House Years"
(TV Critics Circle Award).
While Alexander can be proud of her film roles, including her Academy
Award nominated performances in "Testament" (1985), "Kramer
vs. Kramer" (1979), "All the President’s Men" (1976),
and "The Great White Hope" (1970), the coveted leading lady
roles, she notes, "didn’t happen for me." (Anyone who has
seen Alexander as Nurse Edna in "The Cider House Rules" can
only wonder why another Oscar nomination did not materialize.)
Alexander nevertheless has chalked up a lucky 13 (14 if you count
"standby" for "A Thousand Clowns" in 1963) Broadway
roles, including acclaimed performances in "6 Rms Riv Vu,"
(1972), "Night of the Iguana" (1988), "Shadowlands"
(1990), and "The Visit" (1991). It was "The Sisters Rosensweig"
(1993) that would act as a turning point in her career.
Alexander’s next move pleased many who knew her as a fighter for such
causes as Wildlife Conservation International, Project Greenhope,
the National Stroke Association, and Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament.
It was fortuitous that Alexander would embark on a sabbatical from
acting and take her voice to another stage — this, as a champion
for the entire arts community of America, in the role of chairman
of the National Endowment for the Arts.
I ask if Alexander, in retrospect, found the experience frustrating,
satisfying, or a combination of both. "Because `The Great White
Hope’ was an NEA baby — it was begun with an NEA grant — I
really thought I might be able to contribute to the NEA. I was finishing
up a year’s run in a delicious role in `The Sisters Rosensweig’ and
I really didn’t think there was anything coming up. I was also ready
to do something else," says Alexander, crediting Senator Claiborne
Pell of Rhode Island for proposing her for the position. Alexander
expresses her excitement about the book she has written about her
four years in Washington. "It’s called `Command Performance: An
Actress in the Theater of Politics,’ and it comes out in June."
In it she will undoubtedly reveal "the problems with politicians
in Washington," and how she had to deal with a 45 percent cut
in funding. "Not only has it not gone up, but it has been reduced
another $1 million," says Alexander, who wants people to know
that "our triumph is that we kept it alive."
It is now time for Alexander to return to the stage once more to proclaim
and reaffirm the grand lady’s aristocracy in a display of blandishments
and flurries that will undoubtedly command our attention. "Now
that I’m playing Ranevskaya, there are only two more roles on my list:
Madame Arkadina (`The Seagull’) and Mrs. Alving (`Ghosts’)," says
Alexander. Although she will be asked to put on the forced smiles
and half-hearted regrets of Madame Ranevskaya’s wasteful life, she
can also put on the face of an actor who knows she is in the right
place at the right time.
— Simon Saltzman
Place, 609-258-2787. Opening night for the show that runs through
April 16. $27 to $39. Friday, March 31, 8 p.m.
for any seats available at the time of purchase. Public Rush policy
makes unsold tickets available at the box office only on day of performance
Last spring when McCarter announced its millennium
season, "The Stonemason," a play by Cormac McCarthy, was scheduled
for April. When McCarter opened its season in September, the McCarthy
play — about four generations of an African-American family —
was still on the docket. But when McCarter artistic director Emily
Mann finished working on the opening play, "Fool for Love,"
and turned her attention to her next project, she found the play needed
some work and that the author would not be available. Mann needed
a replacement — without further ado.
Like any other creative person, theater people always have more projects
they want to do than time to do them. And in the back of Emily Mann’s
mind was Anton Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard." She had relegated
it to the back shelf with the intention of doing it — maybe next
year, certainly the year after that. She announced her decision in
"I always knew one day I would direct it," Mann has written,
"and it’s no coincidence that I became obsessed with the play
at the turn of the millennium." She points out that Chekhov’s
play was written in 1904, near the turn of the last century and at
a time of great social transition — between the freeing of the
serfs in 1861 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Lyubov Ranevskaya, the character played by Jane Alexander, is unwilling
to cope with her family’s financial crisis or to take steps to save
her estate. "Aristocratic inertia and entropy," Mann writes,
"are, in the end, bested by upwardly mobile pragmatism and drive
when the estate is bought at auction by the son of one of the family’s
Yet Chekhov is not confined by the historical time. "He tells
a universal story about the private ache and public confusion brought
on by a world in flux," Mann has said. "The more I succumbed
to the work’s peculiarly Russian mix of laughter and tears, the more
I found myself reflecting on our own rapidly transforming historic
She remembers what a Chekhov scholar at the Moscow Art Theater told
her: "`The Cherry Orchard’ is, in the end, about life itself.
We live, smiling in the face of eternity."
Mann spent more than the usual amount of time exploring the richness
of Chekhov’s text, because she did, in fact, do her own translation.
She had directed the Lanford Wilson translation of another Chekhov
play, "Three Sisters," early in her McCarter tenure. But when
she looked at available translations for this play, she found them
disappointing. "Too many of the English versions sounded stiff
and outdated," she says, "while others seemed overlaid with
the distinctive personalities of their translators."
While the timetable was tight, it was more generous than an earlier
one, Mann’s 1997 rendition of the Garcia Lorca play, "The House
of Bernarda Alba." "Adapting Lorca was a last-minute decision,"
says Mann in a moment snatched from rehearsal last week. "I had
one month working 12 to 14 hour days to finish that script. With `The
Cherry Orchard,’ when I decided to do my own adaptation, I had almost
three months to work on it, working six to eight hour days."
Mann enlisted the help of Ellen Chances, a Princeton University professor
of Russian literature. Chances supplied both a literal translation
and a detailed commentary on the verbal nuances and shades of meaning
of the text. "Ellen and I had a wonderful collaboration; we had
meetings to go over the work," says Mann. "Out of those meetings
I created a literal translation from which the script grew."
"Chekhov wrote the way people speak," Mann believes. "His
poetry is one of everyday speech, of common language pressed into
a seemingly effortless mosaic." In both the translation and the
direction, Mann wanted to balance light with dark, because she thinks
that Chekhov’s poignancy is too often emphasized at the expense of
his comic style. She cites how the playwright kept telling the play’s
first director, legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky, that this play
was not supposed to be mournful or weepy but instead should be "fast,
passionate, and terribly funny."
McCarter has assembled a cast worthy of the Chekhov/Mann
script, and how that happened is a tale of good timing and good networking.
If you are a theater professional and Emily Mann says she will do
lunch, say yes.
Take Jane Alexander, for instance. As head of the National Endowment
for the Arts Alexander had been the one to present McCarter’s Tony
Award to Mann in 1994. In 1995, when Alexander was still chair of
the NEA, she spoke at Princeton University’s baccalaureate service.
The actress and her director husband, Ed Sherin, had wanted to discuss
a project with Mann at one of those "we really must get together,
let’s work sometime" lunches. But over the course of the meal
the project that ended up on the front burner was Mann’s idea of having
Alexander take the role of Ranevskaya.
Recently retired from her job at the NEA, Alexander had just had a
run starring on Broadway in the short-lived play "Honour"
and had just finished playing a secondary role in the movie "Cider
House Rules," and she was, indeed, ready to take on a new challenge.
"This is the perfect moment in her career to do this role,"
says Mann. "She’s the perfect age, has the perfect temperament,
and I’ve always wanted to work with her. It’s the perfect time."
Recruiting the rest of the cast involved similar networking opportunities.
The noted actor and director Avery Brooks, for instance, teaches at
Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts, starred as television’s Hawk,
and is starring in "Star Trek Deep Space Nine." He is known
for his role as "Othello," and for more than 20 years he has
been drawing acclaim for the title role in the play "Paul Robeson."
Brooks came to see Mann’s production of the Sam Shepard drama "Fool
for Love" last September and made one of those "We should
work together sometime" statements.
"When Avery and I spoke then, I had no idea that I would be directing
`The Cherry Orchard,’" says Mann. "Once `The Cherry Orchard’
became a reality, we met for lunch, and I told him he’s the definitive
Lopakhin, and that he must play the role."
Lopakhin is the former serf who buys Ranevskaya’s estate. To cast
an African American in a serf role, Mann says, reflects the resonance
between the post-feudal era in Russia and the Reconstruction period
of the United States. The time period coincides: The serfs were freed
only two years before the abolition of American slavery in 1863. She
finds the parallels striking.
Mann was alerted to the possibility of casting Barbara Sukowa, the
distinguished German film and theater actress, by her college roommate.
(The roommate’s German aunt had been the inspiration for one of Mann’s
earliest plays.) Through that family Mann learned that Sukowa, known
for her film work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was living in New
York State with her husband, Robert Longo, a well-known artist. Casting
directors were able to track Sukowa down to play Carlotta.
Also in this production is a dog, and here another insider connection
was tapped. Veteran actor Allan Swift brought his dog "Dreidel"
to rehearsals every day. Dreidel fit the bill. Early in Swift’s diverse
career he had done all the puppet voices on the Howdy Doody show,
and he went on to "do" voices for almost every male celebrity
and politician and hundreds of inanimate objects featured in television
commercials. He is one of Mann’s favorites — this is his fourth
play with her.
Other members of the cast turn out to have their own connections to
Princeton. John Glover, who plays Leonid Gayev, won a Tony and an
Obie for his performance in "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and
received Emmy nominations for five shows, including "Law and Order"
and "Frasier." Glover’s cousin Robert, as it turns out, teaches
history at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School.
To act on the edge that Chekhov requires — between comedy and
tragedy — is not easy, yet Mann says her cast is "capable
of performing on that knife’s edge." Did she use some image or
some pacing technique to maintain that teetering balance?
"The writing did it," says Mann. "We always went back
to the text. We’re doing the play the way Chekhov intended — fast,
passionate and terribly funny. Chekhov said it was a comedy, but we
are not forcing any humor. It’s in the text."
— Barbara Fox
the guests for a dialogue on drama immediately following the 2 p.m.
matinee on Sunday, April 2. Moderated by Janice Paran, McCarter’s
dramaturg, this free event will begin at approximately 4:30 p.m. One
need not attend the performance to attend the dialogue. Post-performance
discussions will be also be held Wednesday, April 5, and Sunday, April
McCarter will host a theater party after the performance on Friday,
April 7, at 8 p.m. The party features performances by acclaimed Russian
artists, pianist Inessa Gleyzerova and vocalist Yakov Yavno. The cost
is the same as the regular ticket: $39 and $35.
Pay-what-you-can performances, subject to availability, are Wednesday,
March 29, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 9, at 7:30 p.m. Public rush
tickets, half price, may be available at the box office on the day
of any performance. Call 609-258-2787.
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