The plain housekeeper is in love with the estate manager who is in love with the lady of the house who has let the estate go to rack and ruin. Add the spirits of the dead expected of playwright Conor McPherson and you’ve got “The Cherry Orchard” with ghosts. Unfortunately, it has neither the tension of the former or, as manifested in his finest works “The Weir” and “Shining City,” the literal and metaphorical shiver of the latter.
McPherson’s story of a formerly grand English family and its (mis)fortunes in rural Ireland in 1822 opens with the estate manager Mr. Fingal (Peter McDonald) and elderly Mrs. Goulding (Brid Brennan) awkwardly rehearsing to one another the troubles of the Lambroke family. Lady Madeleine (Fenella Woolgar) hasn’t paid wages for 13 months but she is poised to soothe everyone’s woes with the marriage of daughter Hannah (Emily Taafe) to a wealthy (unseen) Englishman. But the alliance may be jeopardized by Hannah’s worries over the voices she hears.
Exposition is the necessary bugbear of plays that rely upon backstory but, after initial set-up, that usually gives way to developing action. Not here, alas. There are a couple of scenes of present activity, notably an ill-advised seance, but almost everything else that occurs does so off-stage. That’s a risky endeavour since it’s hard to engage with events and characters that remain unwitnessed and undramatised.
In place of building tension through the depiction of events, McPherson relies on lengthy passages of reported speech in which characters unburden themselves. Chief among these is meddlesome Reverend Barkeley (Jim Norton) who smugly announces his every self-satisfied belief about spiritualism at great length and encourages a late-night séance for his own ends.
Although the characters that attend the seance are all part of the family or temporarily woven into it, for most of the play the familial and spiritual elements rarely mesh dramatically. Secrets are revealed and character details filled in, but they don’t create momentum. Instead, we are shown how each member of the Lambroke family individually carries the gift for spiritual sightings.
Finally, in a scene late in the second act, everything boils over with resentment and a gun is raised. That would suggest that everything has been simmering, but McPherson has rarely lifted the dramatic temperature. Everyone is given a differing viewpoint but collectively the play winds up presenting little more than an inert group portrait.
To compensate, the actors resort to making more of an effort than should be necessary. Peter McDonald in particular bravely goes for broke in a fantasia of drunken bravado, but even he struggles with the fact that the writing has so litle in the way of metaphor.
From a writer as gifted as McPherson, the evening is a particular disappointment. As a director he encourages beautiful, period design work but Neil Austin’s moody lighting on the dwindling grandeur of Rae Smith’s detailed house is more atmospheric than the writing. What McPherson fails to do is energize his own script.