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Review: `Cherry Orchard’

This review by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

February 24, 1999. All rights reserved.

A struggle to save farmland from being turned into

a housing development. Right out of today’s local headlines. Could

this be the plot of Chekhov’s 1904 masterpiece, "The Cherry Orchard"?

Not exactly. For the play’s lead character, Liubov Ranyevskaya,

the orchard is more than real estate. It’s an embodiment of her life

there, be it happy or achingly tragic. "My house, my youth, my

happiness!" she exclaims. At one point she sees people’s names

and faces among the cherry trees.

"Cherry Orchard" is the last of Chekhov’s four great plays

(preceded by "The Sea Gull," produced twice in the area within

the last several months, "Uncle Vanya," and "The Three

Sisters"). "Cherry Orchard" runs through Sunday, February

28, at Bristol Riverside Theater, a charming setting on the Delaware

that is notable for staging beautiful, professional productions. And

here’s another, expertly directed by Edward Keith Baker. But for this

reviewer, the updated translation sounds a jarring note.

"The Cherry Orchard" is also about the passage of time, about

the aimless frittering away of life, and its meaninglessness. Full

of talk, talk, talk that leads nowhere, it seems to presage Beckett’s

"Waiting for Godot." It is also about past and future, age

and youth. As it ends, the 87-year-old servant, Fiers, is left behind

to die, while the young, idealistic Petya Trofimov holds a vision

of a corrected future.

True, Chekhov called the play a comedy. "The whole play will be

merry and frivolous," he wrote. But there’s no ignoring its wrenching

outcome. The impractical Ranyevskaya has no sense of money, spending

and tipping lavishly while the mortgage goes unpaid. The now-rich,

erstwhile peasant, Lopakhin, whose father and grandfather were serfs

on the estate, proposes a solution to save the house: cut down the

cherry trees and subdivide the land for homes. To Ranyevskaya, that’s

hopelessly vulgar; to her brother, it’s nonsense. At the auction,

Lopakhin himself buys the orchard and, as the family prepares to leave,

begins to cut down the trees.

With the cxception of Lopakhin, the middle generation here is a futile

one, a leisured class that scorns working for wages. (After the estate

is lost, Leonid must take such a job.) One commentator, Robert Brustein,

dubs them "futilitarians." "They live by the labor of

others," says Petya, echoing the Socialist ideas of his time.

With its large cast of 12, some of the play’s relationships

are bewildering initially and, not being detailed in the program,

only become clear as the play progresses. Yet this big cast is of

a uniformly high caliber. Stage and film star Keir Dullea plays Lopakhin,

the rich peasant-turned-businessman, with flat, passionless detachment;

yet retains his dignity when he foolishly moos like a cow or crows like

a rooster. Giulia Pagano convincingly plays the attractive, sentimental,

and unrealistic Ranyevskaya; Rand Bridges is persuasive as her equally

impractical and foolish brother, Leonid Gayev, always ready to say

a few words — even to a bookcase. Petra Wright is compelling as

Varya, the older, adopted daughter, a spinster and practical housekeeper

who lacks money to pay the mortgage. In a true Chekhovian moment she

is by-passed by Lopakin, whom she had hoped to marry. Kate Fry as

a squealing Dunyasha and Liz Maccie as Anya capture the gaiety that

this production emphasizes.

The set by Salvatore Tagliarino is handsomely dressed, and Susan White’s

lighting suits the mood. When the tall windows are opened, the soft,

luminous light of the sky on the cherry tree is lovely. Marianne Powell-Parker’s

costumes tell us about the characters. And in the over-long ball scene

— Madame Ranyevskaya is having a party, without money to pay the

orchestra — the dancers’ dresses are gorgeous.

What occasionally jars is the translation by Paul Schmidt (who also

translated the recent version of "The Sea Gull" at George

Street Playhouse). Chekhov set his play in his turn-of-the-century

Russia, and a translation which updates to today’s language, talking

of "child care centers," "leisure homes," and "a

homeless man," momentarily breaks the play’s lovely illusion of

a bygone era that yet resonates in our time. Still, Chekhov himself

might applaud this beautifully blended production.

— Joan Crespi

The Cherry Orchard, Bristol Riverside Theater, Bristol,

215-785-0100. $25 to $29; $9 students. Through Sunday, February 28.

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