You will see the importance of the orchard and how it symbolizes and consumes a way of life in Bonnie J. Monte’s excellent staging of Anton Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard," running through Sunday, July 23, at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. A dense and enveloping presence of white blossoms are projected with gradually intensifying impact on frames within smaller frames in designer Marion Williams’ settings (with stunning lighting by Steve Rosen). Within this dimensional picture we are able to see the effect that a changing way of life has on the members of a once well-to-do Russian family, who are emotionally and intellectually ill-prepared for change near the end of the 19th century.
Like all great plays with universal themes, "The Cherry Orchard" finds a way to communicate to us, sometimes in a very personal way. It is fascinating to consider how communication is experienced through the art of translation. Six years ago artistic director Emily Mann did her own translation for her production at McCarter Theater that was both easy on the ears and essentially respectful of Chekhov’s intentions. Over the years many lauded translations, including those by Constance Garnet, Elizabeth Fenn, Jean Claude van Italie, Ann Dunnigan, Robert Brustein, and Paul Schmidt, have made certain choices, few of which harmed, and some of which indeed enhanced, what is understandably originally Russian in sentiment and style. Monte has chosen to use an early but very fine 1916 translation by Julius West, which to these ears in no way deters a superb cast from creating a world that resonates with honesty, humor, and hubris.
Presiding over this play as her character does over her household is Laila Robins, as Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya. Robins is in her ninth season as a leading actor at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, and no stranger to Chekhov at this theater, giving sterling performances in "The Three Sisters" and "The Seagull." She is impressive in the plum role of the aristocratic matriarch, who is unwilling to be either practical or prepare for the inevitable. A blonde upswept hairdo crowns Robins’ finely chiseled beauty as she moves through her disappearing universe with an imperious self-absorbed elegance. It is both amusing and sad to see how resolutely out-of-touch she is with those around her.
However irksome it may be to watch Ranevskaya respond so recklessly in the face of disaster, Robins’ centered performance still makes it possible for us to empathize with this condescending woman who is oblivious to the realities of tomorrow. Tossing money about as if it was as abundant as the cherry blossoms on her estate, Robins also carefully doles out Ranevskaya’s indulgent charms just enough to fool herself as well as those in her charge. In doing so, she gives us a vivid portrait of a life framed by romantic delusions.
Unable to see that her extravagances are destroying her family, Ranevskaya proclaims and reaffirms her aristocracy by refusing to allow her estate to be turned into a summer colony. Robins allows the forced smiles and half-hearted regrets of a wasteful life to act as her reflection of a woman as useless as her cherry orchard. Dressed in a progression of handsome fashions by designer Maggie Dick, Robins enters for the first time in a fur-trimmed, floor-length red coat and punctuates the muted costume palette of subsequent scenes in a pale peach gown and a gem-encrusted gown of golden fabric. The biggest hurdle Robins has to overcome, and she does this splendidly, is winning us over after her overly studied, awkwardly devised entrance at the start of the play.
While you will not find old world opulence permeating the space around the characters, Monte brings a cautiously contemporary edge to the proceedings by having the cast who support Robins reflect subtly the more abrasive nature of a new society and changing times. This, of course, might be Chekhov’s intention. But Monte clarifies the somewhat loose structure of the play by guiding the actors into the creation of mostly funny flesh and blood people who painstakingly attempt to live in two worlds.
Capitalizing on her strong cast, Monte’s direction is geared to making the play fun. Laughs are plentiful. There is never an instant when you feel you are in the presence of an antique or relic that requires mere respect and admiration. Even though the whole family is in a precarious situation, they are as nutty and delightful a parade of eccentrics as can be found in traditional farce. Edmond Genest is poignant as Ranevskaya’s pitiable endlessly speechifying brother whose well-bred instinct is to amuse and to survive with elegance and dignity.
Although she is required to be almost perpetually angry, Alison Weller remains touching as Varya, Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter. She makes us laugh at her half-hearted attempts at coquettishness and with her annoyance with the clumsiness of the gawky clerk Epikhodof. She also makes us cry at her frustration with Sherman Howard, as the ex-serf now successful merchant Lopakhin, destined to own the property and break Varya’s heart.
Robbie Collier Sublett, who was a revelation as the young apprentice to Galileo last season, turns in an extraordinarily invigorating performance as the nervous and clumsy bespectacled Trofimof, the forever-the-student-prophet who discovers the significance of life and proceeds to bore everyone with his lectures. He annoys everyone – except the infatuated Erin Partin, who gives a willful edge to Anya, the frivolous and spoiled daughter. Josh Carpenter was affectively detestable as the young valet whose insincerities affect the flirtatious maid-servant Dunyasha, as delightfully played by petite Caitlin Chuckta.
Jim Mohr adds enough spunk to his role as Firs, the 87-year-old valet, to suggest that he might survive yet another winter. Stephanie Roth Haberle invests in the role of Charlotta, the children’s governess with a gift for magical tricks. She brings a dimension of isolated wisdom that defines wry insight, often without words. But when it comes to words, you won’t find any more eminently translatable than those that give substance to "The Cherry Orchard" including Madame Ranevskaya’s sage observation, "If in the entire province there is a single remarkable site, it’s our cherry orchard."
It may be a misplaced analogy to compare the disappearance of America’s glorious, awesome, and now almost extinct motion picture palaces with the vast estate that Chekhov writes about in "The Cherry Orchard," his arguably greatest play. As a member of the Theater Historical Society of America (an organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of old theaters), I recently attended a conclave in the Boston area visiting more than 25 old theaters, many of which have already been restored to their former glory. I have come to understand why so many of those huge and extravagant theaters, mostly built during the 1920s (usually seating from 2,000 to 5,000 patrons) and requiring a permanent staff of between 100 and 200, became the victims of cultural and economic changes following the Depression.
In some ways, their fate parallels that of the lavish home and wasteful household of Madame Ranevskaya.
"The Cherry Orchard," through July 23, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theater located on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue (Route 124) at Lancaster Road, Madison. $28 to $50. 973-408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org.