The San Diego Union-Tribune
June 4, 1995

Best of Both Worlds

By CHRIS JENKINS, Staff Writer

Throughout their intertwined careers at the Moscow Art Theatre, playwright Anton Chekhov and director Konstantin Stanislavsky traded offstage dialogue that spun variations on the following:

Stanislavksy: "Your new play is a drama."

Chekhov: "It's a comedy."

S: "Drama!"

Long after his last, great achievement, "The Cherry Orchard" -- first performed in the year of his death, 1904 -- went into rehearsals under Stanislavsky's direction, Chekhov wrote his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, to say he'd "swear" Stanislavksy "never once read my play attentively."

The plays of Chekhov are too limpid for labels anyway. However hackneyed the phrase has become, "lifelike" at least suggests what's going on in "The Cherry Orchard," but there's too much theatrical intelligence at work in it -- wondrously free from theatrical convention -- to reduce it thus. No dramatist ever got more easy-breathing life onto a stage; no one ever mingled cruelties and kindnesses with such mastery.

In summary, the play sounds like a hoary 19th-century Russian melodrama: Free-spending Madame Ranyevskaya and her brother Gayev must do something to prevent their beloved estate and cherry orchard from being sold and destroyed. They end up doing nothing.

David Mamet said it: The play's not really "about" the orchard, or its imminent fate, or "the struggle between the Old Values of the Russian aristocracy and their loosening grasp on power." It is, he contends, a series of scenes about "frustrated sexuality."

Its comically devastating climax -- the long-anticipated marriage proposal made by the estate's new owner, Lopakhin, and his likely soul mate, Varya -- devastates because the proposal doesn't happen. They talk about the weather. Time grows short. And then the moment is dead.

This scene, key to so many of the tonality questions inherent in this play, is one of the best in South Coast Repertory's uneven new production of "The Cherry Orchard."

John Vickery may be miscast as Lopakhin -- he doesn't easily suggest the character's peasant roots -- but he works well with Cindy Katz's fine, edgy Varya. The scene takes place in scenic designer Ming Cho Lee's gorgeously simple, somewhat eerie nursery setting, dominated by five huge upstage windows looking out onto a pink pastel orchard.

Director Martin Benson's tasteful production glides along, avoiding extremes. Some moments, some encounters snap into focus: Megan Cole (Ranyevskaya) unleashing her fists and her fury on Trofimov (a geeky, strident John Walcutt) for reminding her of her drowned son; Raye Birk's Gayev rhapsodizing over his dear family bookcase.

Yet Benson's production tends to skirt as many moments as it effectively glances on. A lot of the acting is arch (Jon Matthews' cad Yasha) or generalized (Luck Hari's Anya) or just plain flat. For all the program notes' emphasis on the play's comic strains, Benson doesn't seem especially attuned to them.

In his second-out outdoor setting, designer Lee may owe a debt to director Lucian Pintilie's Arena Stage "Cherry Orchard," where the brilliant designer Radu Boruzescu brought an entire field of wheat up through the floorboards, burying the forgotten servant, Firs. (Pintilie and Boruzescu collaborated on a "Seagull" at the Guthrie Theater that some of us will never forget.)

In Benson's production, seven oblong units -- planters, really -- bearing stalks of wheat enter from each side of the stage at the top of the play's second act. The shell of the nursery remains on stage, so that symbolically we're still inside the estate. It's a pretty good notion.

Yet like a lot of this pretty production, it's tentative; it doesn't go far enough. Perhaps searching for a balance between the drama and the comedy in Chekhov, Benson and company ended up teetering in the middle.

cherry orchard index