The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov, translated by Laurence Senelick
Directed by Christopher Henley and Gaurav Gopalan
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The Cherry Orchard is a fitting final production for the Washington Shakespeare Company to end its stay at the Clark Street Playhouse, and the full capacity crowd on opening night was eager to celebrate WSC’s legacy. The play, often seen as a cultural microcosm with ruminations about life and death, family, love and money, covers all the bases with a hearty cast of 16 characters to tell the embedded stories. Co-directors Christopher Henley and Gaurav Gopalan create a world of fantasy and farce to relay the alarmingly relevant passages that mirror the state of our own affairs in this day and time. The action of the play revolves around the characters’ interconnections as they relate to the disposition of the cherry orchard, its ancestral legacy, the endangerment of being sold, and the final act of its demise.
In a flowing mix and match, the characters share their stories while interweaving among each other in seamless transitions and movements, lovingly choreographed by Heather Haney. Standouts include Lynn Sharp Spears who portrays the various temperaments of landowner Ranevskaya, from giddy and philanthropic, to austere and morose as her financial ruin becomes more apparent. Almost skipping in delight at one moment, with enough love and abundance to spare and share among all, Spears has touching moments as motherly matron comforting her daughter and foster daughter, caring for a needy brother, and finally succumbing to the trust inducing businessman. Nicely played by Adam Jonas Segaller at the top of his game, the businessman is a crisply dressed smooth talker, ready to say whatever it takes to seal the deal. When gazing at the treasured orchards, instead of the natural beauty, he sees visions of developments, multi-units, and complexes bringing in the bucks, and he describes the possibilities in honey-tones fit for the best hedge fund dealers in town. K. Clare Johnson is a scene stealer as the eager-to-please parlor maid, and the cross-gender casting of John Moletress as the governess with juggling and magic tricks up her sleeve, adds just enough of a bizarre twist, to keep reality at bay, or at least just beyond the orchard.
Set designer, Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden bids a fond farewell to the space with an expansive and raised floor complete with a hole off stage right enabling characters to mysteriously appear and disappear, adding a fun-filled, creative flair.
From the onset, the co-directors have an insistent imperative to stress the play’s comedic orientation as Chekhov originally intended, but sometimes the intensity feels forced and unrelenting. Some moments border on slapstick and can occur alongside tender reflections of death and tragedy. For example, the drowning death of Ranevskaya’s young son is portrayed by one of the spirits sinking in a swirl of blue fabric and occurs several times as a message about the fleeting passage of life. Those scenes are abruptly grafted into passages of gaiety without much of a transition into and out of those reflections. The last act is distinctly more melancholy, reflective, and satisfying with the culmination of decisions that must be made and life that will go on. In the final moments, the always reliable Richard Mancini at the helm embraces the son and the finality of death as an inevitable part of the life cycle for a touching conclusion.
The directors are reaching out of their comfort zones into new territory and the pace is intentionally brisk in an attempt to get hilarious results which sometimes feel like an unsettled smorgasbord of styles. Still, the quirky character interpretations, motivations, and contemporary translation breathe much needed life and accessibility into the production which heighten its startling relevance. At one point, Ranevskaya sighs, “Yesterday I had lots of money. Today there is nothing left.” And the businessman is genuinely moved when acknowledging that his father and grandfather worked as slaves on the estate he just purchased.
Gopalan says it best in his program notes: “Russia in 1904 and American in 2009 have a lot in common … [including] a powerful state on the brink of change. Chekhov of all the great playwrights gets closest to capturing the ephemeral pulse of the spirit of being.” Similarly, Washington Shakespeare Company, of all the theaters, gets closest to showing how theater has no barriers when it comes to portraying universal truths of the human condition and matters of the heart with verve. WSC gets it right. Again.
[Editor’s note: Washington Shakespeare Company will resume their season from a new venue in Rosslyn, VA]
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, one intermission
When: Thru February 15. Thursday – Saturday at 8, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2pm
Where WSC’s Clark Street Playhouse at 601 S. Clark St., Crystal City (Arlington), VA
Tickets: $36 (Saturday matinees are PWYC)