With her new adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann reminds theatergoers that the century-old play is at heart a comedy, and she has illuminated her scenes with broad, bittersweet and warmly wry comic moments. The theater’s spring sked change (“The Cherry Orchard” is replacing the originally slated “The Stonemason,” by Cormac McCarthy) is an apt choice for the new millennium, and Mann’s elegant yet spare adaptation contains several fine individual performances, even if its skeletal focus seems to shortchange the ensemble nature of the play.
In his last masterpiece, Chekhov, who died six months after the play premiered in 1904, meditates on the last days of czarist Russia through the story of an aristocratic family whose ancestral estate must be auctioned off to pay debts. The cherished cherry orchard is to be cleared for a housing development. Humor and hope dominate Chekhov’s twilight elegy to his treasured past, and Mann’s lean new version — which clocks in at a half-hour shorter than many productions — is pointedly direct and accessible.
A poignant, inspired concept by Mann is the ghostly presence of the drowned child Grisha (Benjamin Neumann) — only briefly mentioned in the text — who pulls a toy choo-choo from the nursery at the conclusion of the first scene and materializes to quietly govern subsequent scene changes. The idea has been used before — most recently in l988 at Washington’s Arena Stage — but in Mann’s hands it works as a sadly reflective and profoundly moving statement on the passing of era.
Topping a formidable cast, Jane Alexander gives a stately, luminous performance as the foolishly extravagant and debt-ridden Ranevskaya. Alexander took a four-year pause in her acting career to serve as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, before returning to Broadway in the flop “Honour.” How very nice it is to have her back in a classic role, which she invests with grace and dignity, avoiding the fluttery or frivolous approach.
The resourceful John Glover portrays the pampered and self-centered Gayev, Ranevskaya’s poetically inclined windbag brother. It is inspired casting — Glover brings a breezy, indifferent playboy flavor to the role.
Mann’s insightful casting has crossed the color barrier, with three notable African-American actors in principal roles. (Joseph Papp produced an all-black version, conceived by and starring James Earl Jones, for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1973.) Avery Brooks is a blustery and practical Lopakhin, a wealthy merchant and former serf who rose from the peasant class to become the new landowner, and Caroline Stephanie Clay is lovely as the wistful, unfulfilled Varya, jilted by the insecure Lopakhin. Roger Robinson is Firs, the old family servant. He is a wonderful curmudgeon, still serving drinks and giving orders as a doddering octogenarian.
Barbara Sukowa, a distinguished European stage and screen performer, acts the role of Charlotta, the family governess, like a misplaced vaudevillian. While the character is given to performing magic tricks for house guests, this time around she is formally dressed like a music hall performer in top hat, tux and cape. Sukowa has been well tutored in the art of prestidigitation, floating handkerchiefs in midair and producing fans of playing cards, but the warm family attachment is simply not in evidence.
Glenn Fleshler’s Yepikhodov, the absurdly clumsy clerk, manages to crush hat boxes and stumble over what little furniture there is with a cautiously controlled sense of slapstick. Other portraits are well drawn by Rob Campbell, who portrays Trofimov, the philosophical “perpetual student,” and Kate Goehring, who, while missing the comic potential of the flighty housemaid, manages to invest her character with a bright saucy edge.
The impressionistic set design by Adrianne Lobel, with its functional but bland opaque framed scrims and minimal furniture, diminishes the lavishness of the old estate and its accompanying orchard, but the costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser handsomely accents the fading elegance of the period.