The Orange County Register
June 5, 1995

SCR's 'Cherry Orchard' a Tribute to Chekhov

REVIEW: A brilliant set, solid cast and attention to detail grace this quiet, unaffected production.

By PAUL HODGINS, The Orange County Register

Few playwrights were as finely attuned to the pulse of their age and culture as Anton Chekhov. And no play predicts a nation's future with the uncanny precision of his final 1903 masterpiece, "The Cherry Orchard. "

Watching its labyrinthine character relationships slowly reveal themselves brings on two overriding sensations: delight at the master's subtlety, and a chill of astonishment at his prescience. Old Russia was dying, and he knew what the future held.

A quiet, unaffected and nicely detailed production at South Coast Repertory brings this transitional world into sharp focus.

Estate owner Liubov Ranyevskaya and her clan typify the Russian pre-Revolutionary bourgeoisie. Her inherited fortune depleted, she clings desperately to her ancestral home, a decaying country estate surrounded by a large and unproductive cherry orchard. Liubov has no idea how to extricate herself from a crushing debt, made worse by a five-year sojourn in Paris after the death of her son, during which she wasted the remainder of her fortune on an opportunistic paramour.

Neither she nor her feather-brained brother Leonid Gayev have ever worked a day in their lives.

The two paths of Russia's future are represented within Liubov's ragtag circle of friends and employees: Yermolai Lopakhin, a nouveau-riche businessman whose father and grandfather were her family's indentured servants; and Petya Trofimov, a scruffy student whose leftist rantings about a Utopian future and scorn for money smack of Bolshevism.

One of the most-praised aspects of "The Cherry Orchard" is its characters' complex mix of good and bad qualities. Lopakhin, a kindly man, sincerely wants to help Liubov, yet his eye is always on the bottom line, and he can't forget his past. Trofimov condemns the family's profligate, selfish lifestyle and suffers their thoughtless insults; yet, like Lopakhin, he could never bring himself to hate them.

Aided by Ming Cho Lee's brilliant, expansive set, director Martin Benson echoes Chekhov's talent for gradually providing clues about these characters' inner lives. A small rocking horse sits in a corner of the Ranyevskaya salon, even though there have been no children in this household for years. An old grandfather clock has stopped, probably long ago. An imposing bookcase is filled with impressive-looking tomes, but they're covered with dust. Outside, the cherry orchard looks more dreamlike than real.

John Vickery plays Lopakhin without a trace of country-bumpkin roots, which makes his self-deprecating remarks about his humble origins and rustic ways bitterly ironic. Raye Birk is wonderfully maudlin as the lovable, helpless Gayev. As perpetually pickled landowner Boris Semyonov-Pishchik, Richard Doyle gets to pull out all the "crazy old coot" stops -- something he does exceedingly well. Jon Matthews shines as Yasha, Liubov's despicable crypto-bourgeoisie valet (although he is "The Cherry Orchard's" least nuanced character). David Fenner has fun with the malapropisms of Semyon Yepikhodov, the family's high-strung, luckless accountant. As Firs, the older-than-dust butler, Alan Mandell quietly proves the breadth of his comedic and tragic talents.

Among the women, Cindy Katz's Varya carries a sense of dark forboding, as if she senses the heartache to come in her desperate love for Lopakhin. Fran Bennett is mysteriously fascinating as Carlotta, the family governess. Megan Cole's Liubov, though, seems weighted too heavily toward weepiness, giddiness and self-pity. We should feel she's still anchored by the confidence of a noble pedigree, at least in the beginning. There needs to be some breezy arrogance behind her thoughtless insults.

Benson's skills are most evident in the third act, a highly complex entrance-a-minute ballet that he sustains ingeniously. It's one of the most exhilarating sequences Chekhov ever conceived, full of conflicts, cross purposes and quick changes of focus. Benson's blocking, pacing and respect for fast-shifting character dynamics do it every justice -- a fitting tribute to Chekhov's singular genius.

'The Cherry Orchard'
What: Anton Chekhov's play about a daydreaming family that refuses to face reality when their estate is sold to pay debts
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Continues: Through July 2. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday
How much: $ 16-$ 36
Length: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Suitability: Not suitable for young children

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