Halfway through Alison Carey’s startling adaptation of Chekhov’s masterwork, the production takes a time-traveling leap to the present: Aristocratic Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya suddenly morphs into Olivia, a Martha Stewart-esque grand dame. Serf-turned-businessman Lopakhin becomes Guillermo, an upwardly mobile Latino. And it’s now the sound of Black & Deckers that doom the famous cherry orchard of Ranevsky’s inherited estate — and of Chekhov’s pen.
Time out of balance, colliding and moving forward, is one of the themes of the playwright’s 1904 original, but here it is taken to dramatic extremes.
Carey and helmer Bill Rauch attempt to echo Chekhov’s dying aristocracy and its grand illusions to a new century in transit and denial with references to emails, eminent domain and iPods. One half expects Madame Ranevskaya to say, “Trofimov, we’re not in Kirov anymore.” Darien is a better bet.
Production’s twist might at first intrigue those looking for a way to enliven this much-produced Chekhov, but in the end the premise diminishes the drama by failing to listen to its complex heart.
Both adaptor and director from L.A.’s groundbreaking Cornerstone Theater Company have a laudable history of making connections between classics and the lives of contemporary communities. However, without the halo of outreach, this production’s conceit is more playful than profound. Aud imagination over the years has found more relevance to Chekhov’s comic-tragedy than does this self-conscious updating of the characterizations onstage.
The production may have been better served with a more integrated and sharpened ensemble. Key characters in the first act fail to establish the depth and dimension of Chekhov’s complicated characters, so when they reappear in the second in a modern guise, there’s little emotional capital to spend.
Ruben Garfias’ Lopakhin, the former servant’s son now on the verge of buying the estate, is smooth and self-assured from the start, lacking the character’s desperate out-of-place awkwardness, insecurity and agonizingly conflicted feelings. Laura Odeh’s Anya is shallow and naive (which is right) and bland (which is not), and she registers little presence in the second half.
Peter Van Wagner’s aged butler is the only character who stays the same throughout, but as played by the tall, robust-looking thesp (a last-minute replacement for an ailing Gerald Hiken), Firs seems far from fragile and not easy to overlook, robbing the character of his inherent sadness and heartbreak at the end of the play.
The production’s switch-in-time device doesn’t point or counterpoint to characters or play to Chekhov’s harrowing multiple juxtaposition of emotions. Worse, it never finds the right rhythms or language and so reduces Chekhov’s words to slangy, near-parodic proportions.
In this exurban setting of Whole Foods shopping, Green Day and Rolling Stones songs and patio furniture, characters say things like, “Hey, Varada, what’s with the hostility?” Or, “Dude, that’s not drinking, that’s guzzling.”
The second-act switch is hinted at in a first-act scene set in a countryside cemetery, when a homeless man (Daniel John Kelly) enters pushing a supermarket grocery cart filled with plastic bags. (It’s also a sly nod to Rauch’s community-centric production of “The Good Person of New Haven” five years ago at Long Wharf Theater.)
Sometimes the nontraditional casting hints at intriguing possibilities. Adoptive daughter Varya, played here by Sarayu Rao, an actress of Indian heritage, is even more the family outsider. African-American Bridget Jones plays Dunyasha, the maid, and her aspirations of a better life seem more desperate than ever. But both thesps push the comedy to unrealistic levels and miss the heart, as does clumsy malaprop servant Epihodov (a nevertheless amusing Carson Elrod).
Solid throughout, however, is Lisa Harrow’s regal, oblivious and captivating Ranevskaya. Thesp hits all the right notes and then modulates them to another key as she transforms herself to another era.
In Harrow’s intelligent perf, one can see moments in which the production’s dramatic conceit could possibly work. But one also could see a far more human and heartfelt perf — and production — if its creators had kept things simple, pure and true.