Regina Taylor’s adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard” is one freighted play, weighed down both with the self-imposed anxiety of Chekhovian influence and a desire to depict the convoluted depth of America’s ever-evolving racial history within a particular social moment. Despite flashes of insight and intrigue, and some commanding performances in Anna D. Shapiro’s production for the Goodman Theater, in its present form “Magnolia” is a mostly leaden work, effortful and humorless.
Taylor, who previously adapted “The Seagull” into “Drowning Crow,” sets this play as the civil- rights movement was gaining steam. Atlanta in 1963 prided itself as being more accepting of social change, integrating lunch counters and schools without the violent unrest that had shaken Alabama and Mississippi. But the otherwise liberal mayor had recently erected a wall to block potential black homebuyers from the white neighborhood of Peyton Avenue, a physical emblem of efforts to dam the flood of change.
Capably standing in for the old Russian aristocracy is the Forrest family, owners of a former plantation now on the brink of foreclosure. There’s Lily (Annette O’Toole), who like Ranevskaya left the estate following her son’s accidental death and now returns home from years abroad, toting teenage daughter Anna (Caitlin Collins). And there’s Lily’s brother Beau (the always terrific John Judd), a meaner version of Chekhov’s Gayev — instead of nostalgic, windy reminiscences addressed to furniture, he’s an angry man who stamps out his sister’s cigarette in a fit of propriety.
Rather than setting the play at the estate, Taylor takes it into a more public sphere, positioning most of the scenes at either the black diner Black Pearl’s or the recently integrated eatery Kerry’s. Still, the black characters either work for the Forrest family, or used to.
At the center of the piece stands Thomas (a controlled, earnest John Earl Jelks), Taylor’s version of former serf Lopakhin. He grew up on the estate as the ancestor of slaves and son of a field hand who would also entertain the white populace Bojangles-style. Named after his father, the reference to Uncle Tom is clearly intentional, a legacy that the younger Thomas, a successful real-estate man, is eager to shed. In one of the play’s smartest moments, he explains he has no interest in being the first black person to buy a house in a white neighborhood. He’d rather be the second, taking advantage of plummeting prices following white flight.
But even while Taylor fleshes out Thomas and Lily — who has more than a dash of Blanche DuBois — she doesn’t really set their relationship in motion. They don’t actually interact with each other until well into the play, and the central plot point of Thomas giving guidance on saving the estate and being rebuffed is reduced to a single undeveloped scene. Lily, with a touch of the bohemian, doesn’t seem like she would be that closed-minded, while Thomas — really all business — doesn’t seem like he would be that helpful.
And that’s the biggest problem here. Audience members not familiar with the source material likely will feel they’re missing the key to unlock the work’s watered-down storylines — all the little love stories, in particular, remain unformed. But for those who know their Chekhov well, the experience becomes like filling out a mental checklist.
Unlike adaptations that take flight from their inspirations — Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” launching from Brecht’s “Mother Courage” or Horton Foote’s own “Cherry Orchard”-like “Dividing the Estate” — “Magnolia” hues closely to the original dramatis personae. Taylor has kept so many characters, in fact, that it’s easy to fall into the exercise of matching and comparing them to their originals, working hard to glean perspective and meaning from Taylor’s transpositions.
Among the positives, we get some strong monologues — the best of them from governess Carlotta (a terrific Roxanne Reese), who riffs on her unlucky history in Hollywood in relationship to Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen. Taylor thoughtfully shifts the theme of change into occasionally provocative discussions of freedom and social responsibility. And, sporadically, the work lurches into moments of genuine entertainment whenever Ernest Perry Jr. comes on stage as the ancient servant.
But overall the play struggles with its tone — it has almost none of Chekhov’s lighter touches, nor his ability to blend the social, psychological and existential into something that comes achingly close to life itself. In the end, “Magnolia” just feels contrived, which is perhaps the very opposite of the adjective “Chekhovian.”