Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Shaw Festival

Benedict Campbell as Lopakhin and Laurie Paton as Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya

You want variety if you’re thinking of seeing two Shaw Festival shows in one day.  For instance, you don’t necessarily want to see two yawner dramas like The Seagull and Heartbreak House within the course of nine hours.  We tried pairing a frivolous forties musical (see this post) with Anton Chekhov’s tragicomedy The Cherry Orchard and ended up with a nicely balanced day.  

On such doubleheader days we marvel at the repertory actors who are doing double duty.  The afternoon’s singing and dancing star of One Touch of Venus, Robin Evan Willis, for example, reappeared in the evening’s The Cherry Orchard as Anya — and we are in a position to report that Ms. Willis still had time between shows to have drinks at the Epicurean with what looked like out-of-town friends.  It was probably well that, in her first scene in The Cherry Orchard, Anya is supposed to be exhausted from a long journey.  Mark Uhre, Neil Barclay, Gabrielle Jones, and Julie Martell all delivered high-energy performances in the musical before walking across the street to use their heavy acting chops in the Chekhov play in the intimate confines of the Court House Theatre, where the actors are only inches apart from the patrons. 

Neil Barclay as Pishchik and Laurie Paton as Ranyevskaya

The Cherry Orchard is dear to our heart, and judging from the snippets of animated conversations we overheard at intermission, many of our many fellow patrons also had decided feelings about the play. It can’t be easy for a director like Jason Byrne to bring something fresh into a play so well-loved by so many, but we think he succeeded.  The Shaw Festival show is intelligently planned and exceptionally well-acted, and we found it genuinely moving.

The Cherry Orchard gives us several painful scenes in the life of a family of Russian aristocrats around the turn of the last century. The central figure is Lyubov Andreyevna Ranyevskaya (Laurie Paton), a widow whose large estate has a formerly magnificent cherry orchard that she considers “the one remarkable thing in the whole province.” As her brother Gayev (Jim Mezon) chimes in, it’s mentioned in “the Encyclopedia.”

But as much as she professes to love her home, Ranyevskaya has spent the last six years off in Paris wasting her fortune on a worthless lover while working out her grief from the accidental drowning of her small son.  She and and her daughter Anya (Robin Evan Willis) arrive back home just weeks before the estate is to be sold at foreclosure.  Even though the situation presents a business opportunity for himself, Ranyevskaya’s wealthy neighbor Lopakhin (Benedict Campbell) magnanimously urges her to save herself from financial ruin by taking an axe to the cherry orchard and converting the land into riverside summer cottages for upwardly mobile city-dwellers. 

As the family dithers, Yepikhodov plays his guitar for Dunyasha in the estate gardens. This illustration by Lajos Szalay is in one of our editions of The Cherry Orchard.

Ranyevskaya and Gayev can no more deal with this crisis than the czars could deal with the conditions that would lead to the communist revolution only a few years later. Still less can they hear advice from Lopakhin, whose father was, after all, only a serf. Together with their equally impecunious neighbor and constant houseguest Pishchik (Neil Barclay), they all dither until the day of the auction, expecting, like Micawber, that something will “turn up.” 

What riveted us in this Cherry Orchard was the relationship between Ranavskaya and Lopakhin.  Even though Ranyevskaya still thinks of her wealthy friend as a peasant boy, she is, paradoxically, anxious for her stepdaughter Varya (Severn Thompson) to be married to this very man. 

Early in the play, Lopakhin remembers when, as a child, his drunken father bloodied his nose and Ranyevskaya washed him up, saying, “Don’t cry, little peasant; it’ll mend by your wedding day.” A footnote in one of my editions indicates that this is just a proverbial Russian phrase, but Chekhov’s use of it was no accident. Decades after the bloody-nose episode, Ranyevskaya is hoping to see Lopakhin married in earnest. Is she thinking only of how such an alliance could save them all from poverty?  Or does she also mean to patronize the grown-up peasant boy?  Would she and Gayev still be anxious to bestow Varya on Lopakhin if Varya’s father had been a nobleman, not merely a lawyer? 

And what of Lopakhin and his heart-breaking inability to propose to Varya? Before seeing this show, we chalked it up to the inability of any Russian in this play to act sensibly or decisively. But now it seems clear to us that Lopakhin cannot propose to Varya because he is, instead, in love with the unattainable Ranyevskaya. He agrees to speak to Varya only because, like a peasant, he can deny Ranyevskaya nothing to her face.  But there will be no wedding day; his peasant’s nose, figuratively speaking, will be bloodied and unmended for the rest of his life. 

Robin Evan Willis, Laurie Paton, Severn Thompson, Jim Mezon

The cast of The Cherry Orchard is the Shaw Festival’s “A” team. Jim Mezon overpowered a weaker cast last year in A Moon for the Misbegotten, but here, working with actors of the same rank, he is an ideal Gayev, a drone of a brother given to meaningless eloquence. As the much-abused Varya, Severn Thompson gives a nuanced, genuinely moving performance, the best we can remember seeing from her. Laurie Paton is finest of all as the tragic Ranyevskaya; every word, gesture, and glance from her tells. 

The family leaves the cherry orchard estate. Lajos Szalay's illustration: "Good-bye to the old life!"

We don’t know what to make of the fact that each of three shows we’ve seen so far this year at the Shaw Festival involves elements of magic. In Harvey, of course, the pooka himself is magical and the story is spiced with supernatural events. In One Touch of Venus, a statute transforms into a goddess who, in one scene, disappears like magic from a barber’s chair. And in The Cherry Orchard, Anya’s governess, Charlotta (Gabrielle Jones), who was raised among gypsies, performs magic tricks for the amusement of the family.

Emsworth’s take on the Shaw Festival’s production of the Kurt Weill musical One Touch of Venus is at this post. His review of the classic American comedy Harvey, also in repertory at the Shaw Festival, is at this post.

Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on all the shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season are at this post.

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