Everyone in Nicholas Martin’s production of “The Cherry Orchard,” which reteams the Huntington helmer with thesp Kate Burton, is in a state of heightened anxiousness. Often these frayed nerves result in broad comedy; at other times they bring heartbreak, with characters bursting into tears over lost loves and lives. Joy and despair bounce off each other with unnerving abandon in a production that vibrates with the unexpectedness of life.
This bipolar approach to Chekhov may be disconcerting at first, but it also makes perfect sense with fraught characters living on the edge of seismic social changes in turn-of-the-20th-century Russia. Martin — aided by Richard Nelson’s clear and comfortable translation — makes the many sides of Chekhov’s complicated, often contradictory characters seem as natural as the changing seasons depicted in the play.
Much of the success lies in the individual performers’ ability to tap into their character’s fluctuations and depths; in this production, that ability varies greatly.
Burton, who always brings a sense of groundedness to her roles, is practically airborne (while still being high-born) as the frivolous, self-obsessed Madame Ranevskaya, who returns to her beloved Russian estate after a series of personal and financial disasters. But it’s a new world order to which she returns, one that gives her little solace as she tries to remain aloft amid her grief and despair. Burton is aglow with glam and passion, but heartbreak and mourning are never far away as she rides the emotional wave with consummate skill, grace and truth.
Mark Blum brings a loopy grace and subtle fragility to Ranevskaya’s verbose, drifting brother Gaev. Sarah Hudnut finds the humor, pride and heartache as her long-suffering adopted daughter Varya.
Solid perfs also are given by Dick Latessa as the ancient servant Firs, Joyce Van Patten as an especially droll and deadpan Charlotta and Jeremy Beck, a standout who finds continual comic freshness as the accident-prone clerk Yephikhodov.
Will LeBow, an actor of range and depth, is miscast here as the former serf turned landlord Lopakin. He seems as old as Ranevskaya, who supposedly was a mother figure to him as a boy. His skillful comic talent also misses the desperate unpinning and awkwardness of the perpetual outsider.
The production’s juggling of contradictory moods keeps the play’s conclusion from its often sentimental end. Here the end-as-they-know-it of the country house becomes just another natural transition for these emotionally changing characters. Some are hopeful, others are resigned, others still at a loss. Life is filled with mixed emotions.
As Ranevskaya finally finds closure to her past and walks out into the light, the once-grand house is boarded up, an ancient servant is forgotten and darkness falls.