Review: ‘The Cherry Orchard’

While it's true that Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" is about the end of Russia's feudal system and the clash between a dying bourgeoisie and the forces leading to revolution, those intellectual facts too often cloak productions in a rigidness that undermines the very essence of what informs this dramatist's work on stage.

While it’s true that Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” is about the end of Russia’s feudal system and the clash between a dying bourgeoisie and the forces leading to revolution, those intellectual facts too often cloak productions in a rigidness that undermines the very essence of what informs this dramatist’s work on stage.

Chekhov is first and foremost imbued with the largeness of the Russian soul, a symphonic grandeur squirming to free itself of a disintegrating class structure so inbred you can smell the decay and taste the indolence. Director Diana Leblanc, who a few seasons ago was responsible for the runaway hit “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” understands this and brings balance and intensity of feeling to her production, allowing history to shape, but never to dictate. As someone once pointed out, Chekhov done well feels like a Russian Tennessee Williams, and that quality is very much in evidence here, with the hot lushness of emotional distress bubbling constantly at the surface.

And glory be, Leblanc has also remembered that this is a tragicomedy; from pratfalls to the reading of lines, she has avoided the obvious and encouraged her actors to find humor rather than high drama. It works beautifully because there is drama aplenty in merely playing these characters with integrity.

This is where “Cherry Orchard” puts down roots as the best of Stratford’s shows so far this season: Leblanc has her actors fill each role with minute detail, with the sort of life that lets you breathe the dust in the neglected attic and wraps you in the aching death throes of these stubborn landowners who refuse to buckle into the future.

In only one of many wonderful examples, a character wanders onstage with a suitcase, which promptly splits open, spilling the contents. For the next 10 minutes, he busies himself with repacking and tying string around the offending case. Far from scene-stealing, this tiny, ongoing action sets a naturalistic framework around the production that nothing else could do — not even John Murrell’s excellent translation, which avoids much of the stodginess one associates with classical plays in a second language.

Chekhov’s naturalism is a clevercounterpoint to the highly colored, psychological heart of his plays, and throughout this production the cast embraces both — the tiny details and the operatic tone — weaving together an ensemble in which individuals take their “aria” and then recede to support the others. As a result there are no starring roles, only that delicious sense of a company acting at its best.

A magnificent set by Astrid Janson, whose lace curtains become both atmospheric exclamation marks and scrims for background action, fits Leblanc’s vision well, while Louise Guinand and Elizabeth Asselstine’s pensive lights cast shadows of regret, at times reducing the characters to washed-out, antiquated, porcelain dolls wound up for their last dance of avoidance.

The Cherry Orchard

Tom Patterson Theater at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario; 489 seats; C$62 ($41) top

Production

A Stratford Festival presentation of the play in two acts by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Diana Leblanc.

Creative

Design, Astrid Janson. Lighting, Louise Guinand, Elizabeth Asselstine; music, Stephen Woodjetts; sound, Jim Neil; choreographer, Valerie Moore. Opened, reviewed June 24, 1998. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Lyubov - Martha Henry
Leonid - Stephen Russell
Anya - Anne Ross
Varya - Sarah Dodd
Charlotta - Kate Trotter
Lopachin - James Blendick
Petya - David Jansen
Yasha - Geordie Johnson
Peers - William Needles
Pishchick - Robert Persichini
Yepichodov - Jordan Pettle
Dunyasha - Tamara Bernier
A Vagrant - Evan Buliung
A Station Master - Tim Campbell
Grisha - Max Besworth
Knipper - Keepers Brown
With: Greg Bryk, Evan Buliung, Tim Campbell, Matt Deslippe, Jacklyn Francis, Philip Hohol, Pamela Johnson, Dan Leberg, Dave Parsons, Zaib Shaikh, Ben Walsh.
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