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Family Trees

More than an orchard is at stake in this production of a Russian classic

Deborah Hazlett (right) hugs Megan Anderson.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/8/2009

The Cherry Orchard

By Anton Chekhov

Through April 26 at Everyman Theatre

The great mystery at the center of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is this: Why doesn't the Ranyevskaya family do something to save the family estate they claim to love so much? It's not as if they're unaware of the impending danger. Every day the neighboring landowner Lopakhin visits and urges the Ranyevskayas to sell off part of their property before the Aug. 22 auction date so they don't lose it all. But Lyuba Ranyevskaya and her brother continue to spend money on expensive restaurants, fancy parties, and noble gestures, blithely assuming some miracle will save them before the auction.

It's easy to poke fun at these aristocrats in denial--and you can stage this 1904 play quite effectively as a comedy, for the Ranyevskayas' foolishness is not so different from our own. But director Vincent Lancisi has taken a very different approach for Everyman Theatre's production. Instead of making the family's excuses feel ridiculous, Lancisi takes their claims seriously. When Lyuba stands at the window and tells her grown daughters that she sees her own mother strolling through the snowy blossoms of the cherry orchard, she seems more poignant than deluded.

Her mother is long dead, of course, but Lancisi allows actress Deborah Hazlett to linger at the window, her eyes dampening as the dialogue dies away and a far-off string band plays. Suddenly, you can understand how much family history is buried among those cherry trees and why Lyuba could never order their destruction. She would rather do nothing and have the orchard taken from her than be complicit in its ruin. This is a very different take on the play than the usual comedy, but it's a measure of Chekhov's greatness that Lancisi's strategy works equally well.

The aging matriarch isn't the only one who sees ghosts in the blossoms. Trofimov, "the perpetual student," stares at the orchard and sees all the serfs who died keeping the trees alive. Lopakhin sees the abused peasant boy he once was. Anya (Julia Proctor)--Lyuba's 17-year-old daughter and Trofimov's unacknowledged sweetheart--sees her future, implausible happiness. In each case, time seems to slow down onstage as the action freezes and the talk evaporates until the audience is absorbed into the same trance.

It helps that set designer James Fouchard has provided cherry trees so stylized that they feel to exist only in the imaginations. Long logs with the rough bark still on them form the trunks, flat sheets of plastic punched and cut up into irregular shapes and splattered with white paint become branches and blossoms. The prosaic realism of the other props--the heavy antique furniture and blocky pillars--only reinforces the trees' dreamy abstraction.

The show gets off to a wobbly start, for in his effort to downplay the comedy, Lancisi lets the early funny scenes go flat. It's only when Lyuba hallucinates her mother near the end of the first act that the production finds its balance. Only then do you realize that Lyuba's ditzy behavior is the result not of blindness, but of seeing all too well the tragedy looming before her.

Nor is she the only one. Lopakhin has been courting Lyuba's older daughter Varya, but can't bring himself to propose--not because he's scared, but because he's torn between resentment toward the family that owned his father as a serf and a desperate need for their approval. If actor Craig Wallace, a big man not quite at home in his expensive suits, looks a bit obnoxious when Lopakhin is boasting and a bit obsequious when the self-made millionaire is begging Lyuba to save herself, that's entirely in keeping with this conflicted character.

Actress Megan Anderson wears nun-like black dresses and shawls as Varya and tries to run the house with an iron hand. But whenever Lyuba's impulsiveness or Lopakhin's evasiveness become too much for her, Anderson's steel-rod body suddenly sags like a sack of sugar--with startling effect. And Trofimov, usually portrayed as an unworldly dreamer, is given an unexpected dignity by Clinton Brandhagen, whose ironic smile suggests that he realizes how far-off his utopian dreams are and that he's willing to work for them just the same.

The Cherry Orchard is the tale of one class declining and another rising, but Chekhov isn't interested in politics or sociology. He's interested in what it feels like to be a Lyuba and have to pack up the lamps and pictures from a house where one's grandparents lived. He's interested in what it feels like to be Lopakhin and stride with muddy boots through a house where he was once barred from the door. A dozen characters are given acute psychological portraits, and it all culminates in a devastating final scene of packed luggage, clutching embraces, and sharpened axes.

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