'Cherry Orchard' is solid, evocative

October 07, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Director Irene Lewis frames Center Stage's season-opening production of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" with parallel images. In the first scene, Lopakhin, the peasant-turned-businessman, has fallen asleep on a chaise longue, covering himself with a dust cover. At the end of the play, Firs, the aging household retainer who has been inadvertently left behind, settles down for a nap on the same piece of furniture, also using the dust cover as a blanket.

Similar as these scenes look, they reinforce the topsy-turvy world in which the play takes place -- a world often interpreted as forecasting the Russian Revolution and one that takes on renewed meaning in light of the changes in Russia today.

Lopakhin, who represents the new order, will eventually own this estate on which his father and grandfather were serfs. Firs, on the other hand, embodies the crumbling old order -- he chose to stay on when the serfs were given their freedom. Lopakhin throws off the dust of the past; Firs embraces it.

This subtlety is typical of the sensitive, solid approach Lewis has taken to a play -- translated by Elisaveta Lavrova -- in which people are not judged, but are portrayed as struggling individuals whose lives are characterized by a series of missed connections.

Stephen Markle, who has found goodness in far less likely characters in the past, makes an impressively conflicted FTC Lopakhin. Markle's Lopakhin reveals his crude origins by speaking too loudly, gesturing too broadly and taking too much pride in his nouveau riches. But he leaves no doubt of his affection for Madame Ranyevskaya, the aristocratic owner of the estate.

As this grande dame, Lois Smith is much more than a frivolous dowager who threw away a fortune and is now in danger of losing her estate. Smith shows us Madame Ranyevskaya's large, kind-hearted nature. She literally cannot hold onto her purse, and she skips around the nursery of her childhood home as if merely being there could bring back her happy girlhood. But she can also be heart-rending, as in the quiet scene in which she explains that she regards the drowning of her beloved young son as punishment for the misfortunes of her love life.

It's easy to understand why outsiders as well as her own family are devoted to her. Carrie Preston, as her daughter Anya, makes the bond between mother and daughter palpable; the third act )) scene in which Anya comforts her is one of the most touching instances of reversed roles in this upside-down milieu. The bond between Madame Ranyevskaya and her brother Gayev is equally strong, and James J. Lawless enhances it by imbuing Gayev with many of his sister's gentle qualities.

Of the principals, only Colette Kilroy, as Madame Ranyevskaya's stern adopted daughter Varya, delivers a performance that lacks shadings. But even she elicits compassion when -- in the most poignant example of miscommunication -- her romance with Lopakhin is thwarted.

A number of additional elements strengthen the play's basic themes. The back wall of Tony Straiges' set is decorated with a wallpaper design, but behind it is a scrim of giant cherry blossoms that shine through and at times overtake the $l wallpaper, depending on Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting.

In addition, Lewis has enlarged the role of the Ranyevskayas' governess (Janni Brenn), giving her a post-intermission magic act in which her ability to make things appear and disappear mirrors the upheaval on the estate.

Most evocative of all, however, is the young boy (Brad Reiss) Lewis includes among the peasants who work on the estate (and also move scenery). A silent reminder of Madame Ranyevskaya's drowned son, he also represents Lopakhin, who, like this boy (and Chekhov himself), was slapped, and indeed beaten, as a child. Insightful details like this are the production's real magic.

"The Cherry Orchard"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays, and Oct. 15 and Oct. 29; and at 1 p.m. Oct. 19. Through Oct. 30. (Audio-described performance at 8 p.m. Oct. 11; sign-interpreted performance at 2 p.m. Oct. 29; and audio-described and sign-interpreted performance at 1 p.m. Oct. 19)

Tickets: $10-$35

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

***

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