Steve LaRocque shines in Quotidian’s No-Frills Cherry Orchard
The peasant-born millionaire Yermolay Alexeyevich Lopakhin often commands center stage in Quotidian Theatre Company’s earnest, no-frills adaptation of The Cherry Orchard. That is fitting, as actor Steve LaRocque’s creation embodies the spindle around which the ill-fated family of Lyubov Ranevskaya agitates, fusses about, and ultimately crashes up against as the 20th century’s cataclysmic changes take shape.
Quotidian’s production, translated and directed by Jack Sbarbori, offers up Anton Chekhov’s final play in the naturalistic style for which the playwright is most noted. The action onstage is often subdued, even slightly muddled, as characters come and go, speak over each other and get lost in conversations such as real family members would. Scenes of emotional charge never blow up, as is often the case in real life, and quiet moments nuanced in psychological realism propel the drama forward.
The Cherry Orchard is essentially about change, and specifically about a family losing its home, a construction representing its place in the world, and its past. Ranevskaya, affectionately called Lyuba, together with her daughter Anya, her foster daughter Varya, and her brother Leonid, are forced by debt to give up their estate and its beloved cherry orchard.
From the beginning of the play, a family friend, the serf-turned-capitalist Lopakhin, has warned them of the impending catastrophe, and urged them to cut down the cherry orchard, subdivide the land, and lease it for summer cottages in an embrace of the new materialism ripening in post-emancipation Russia. They refuse to entertain this idea, and prove incapable of coming up with a viable plan to save the estate.
The lives of all the characters will therefore be governed by change: Lyuba will return to Paris and her abusive lover; Anya will start a new future with her suitor Petya Trofimov, a revolutionary student; Varya, whose marriage to Lopakhin falls through, will become a housekeeper; and Leonid will take a 6,000 ruble a year job in a bank. The servants—the eccentric governess Sharlotta, the chambermaid Dunyasha, the valet Yasha, and the clerk Yepikhodov—are forced to adapt themselves to the changed fortunes of their employers. The old butler Firs, who has lived his whole life on the estate, is left behind, forgotten and locked in the house as Lopakhin’s men begin to cut down the cherry trees.
Famously, Chekhov and the play’s first director, Constantin Stanislavsky, couldn’t agree as to whether they had produced a comedy or a tragedy or something of both. All of the rich complexity of the original has been kept intact and performed with resoluteness under Sbarbori’s direction. The somber family drama; the paean to Russia’s aristocratic twilight; the jarring warning from the future in the sound of “the broken string” and the student Trofimov’s careless radical devotions; even the distracting vaudevillian flourishes, from the bumbling Yepikhodov to Sharlotta’s bloodless magic tricks.
LaRocque’s Lopakhin is a consummate exemplar of this complexity, as the character is both underdog achiever who attains his wealth through hard work and the demon of the drama, literally the destroyer of the titular cherry orchard and what the arbor represents. Lopakhin constantly drives the play forward; he is its source of energy and action. He outlines a plan for Lubya to save her estate, offers her a loan, and ends up buying the estate in the end. What makes him compelling is that, like Lyuba, he is also driven by the past, chiefly memories of his harsh peasant upbringing.
Simmering with grievance and indignation, Lopakhin is often in flux, swinging his arms, wringing his hands, provoked by the charge of his fate to buy the failing estate and usher out the futile aristocracy. The drama’s only eruptive scene occurs when it is announced that Lopakhin has become the master of the land he was born a serf to. It is on the strength of LaRocque’s stirring dignity at this momentous realization that the play’s high note is rung.
Sbarbori’s set is spare and suitably austere, no doubt the way Chekhov himself would have ordered it. It probably could be opened up a bit, as actors tend to bunch up together in the boxy space, though it leads to the ingenious effect of characters announcing themselves by muffled conversation before entering the scene, again, as in reality.
Stephanie Mumford’s costumes are pleasing and delightful, realistic to the period without looking stuffy. They imbue the élan of a much larger production. The recorded cello of Tanya Anisimova, used to segue between scenes and augment the emotional backdrop is evocative and beautiful.
Alongside LaRocque’s grounding presence, Jane Squier Bruns and John Decker are in full control of their characters, the tragic Lyuba and her flighty brother Leonid. Decker’s meanderings into overly sentimental and rhetorical speeches are especially funny, played with a wry artfulness.
The Cherry Orchard is inherently challenging because of its conflicting tones and large cast of noisy characters, but its Naturalist tenor may be the most demanding impediment for some. The play moves at a much slower speed than more contemporary fare, which without the patience to drink it in, could be off-putting to some viewers. I would suggest exercising that patience and letting the unhurried drama wash over you and seep in, like groundwater. It’ll be worth it.
The Cherry Orchard plays thru Aug 7 at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street in downtown Bethesda, MD.
The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Jack Sbarbori
Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company
Reviewed by Roy Maurer