Canonical Chekhov is quite a departure from the usual for the in-your-face crew at Steppenwolf. But despite her auteur reputation, director Tina Landau here delivers a dignified, democratic, smart and thoroughly well-acted version of “The Cherry Orchard” that hits slap in the middle of the perennial Chekhovian tradition-vs.-progress equation. The elegant production catches the play’s wistful, elegiac tone in roughly the same proportions as it acknowledges its comic criticisms of the self-indulgence of the land-owning class.
When compared to some outre Euro takes on the text, this certainly is not a radically progressive or startlingly revisionist affair that screams for an immediate transfer. But one hopes Curt Columbus’ new translation — a clear, distinct and unfussy rendition that avoids anachronistic language without overplaying the dignity card — will get some further outings. It’s less lefty than, say, the Trevor Griffiths version, but it also doesn’t pander to the poetic-realism traditionalists, thank God. And it shows us the aristocrats’ greed as well as their sense of loss.
Landau and Columbus combined offer a savvy piece of work that’s unfussy, fair-minded and right-headed. Nothing feels imposed on the text — on the contrary, Landau emphasizes the work’s collective humanity by having her actors constantly scurrying around the stage, moving on from one worry and crisis to the next and never spending too long on any one particular concern.
Given the scattered and self-destructive nature of the rich people in denial who populate this play, that’s a highly justifiable approach, even if it does let Mme. Ranevskaya and her crew off the hook a tad. And while the ensemble gels beautifully (clearly, that’s where the director’s attentions went), the lead performances could stand to turn up the intensity a notch. Even a highly conversational and credible “Cherry Orchard” can stand a few bravura moments.
Instead, most of the innovations here are visual — the show dispenses with the usual walls and trees in favor of an intriguing, utterly enveloping environment from Riccardo Hernandez, making heavy use of huge swaths of lily-white fabric with vague outlines of branches thereupon. It’s a beautiful design, although it lends the affair a certain inevitable starkness.
And at the start of the show — staged in Steppenwolf’s flexible, upstairs space — Landau creates acting spaces above and behind the audience, allowing us to see Anya in her boudoir and so on. As the show goes on, those spaces drop away, which is a shame. The production could stand a further move toward the distinctive.
Instead, Landau emphasizes the vertical traffic patterns in her wall-less theater. Mme. Ranevskaya and her crew are forever dashing in and out, rushing from side to side, yakking and kvetching. One has a sense that it’s always moving day around here. That works well most of the time — it’s a boon to energy and pacing — but it comes at the price of fully experiencing the aristocrat’s chagrin at losing her beloved trees. If Ranevskaya is already a gypsy, the stakes in the play inevitably are lowered.
That said, Amy Morton offers a rich and detailed performance, nicely balanced between desperation and denial. As Lopakins go, Yasen Peyankov is more sympathetic than most. But in the pivotal act-two speech, we finally get a sense of his class-based anger. It would be nice to see a little more.
The comic figures are more broadly played but still work well. Rondi Reed comes up with a droll, dry-as-dust turn as Charlotta, and Guy Adkins sings and dances cheerily, snagging the laughs.
How Steppenwolf subscribers will take to this remains to be seen. It’s hardly Sam Shepard meets the Moscow Art Theater, and it won’t have the legs of Landau’s brilliant version of “The Time of Your Life.” But it does prove Steppenwolf can handle the classics.