A 19th-century play for our times

theater review

Everyman's 'Cherry Orchard' excels at portrayal of characters feeling financial pinch

March 22, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

The stylized treetops in Everyman Theatre's production of The Cherry Orchard appear to be made from glass. The leaves and flowers are transparent, though dabbed with white paint. When the ground beneath them heaves and resettles, you can practically see the delicate branches shatter.

Even though Anton Chekhov's drama is set in early-20th-century Russia, at times the play's depiction of a splintering way of life strikes too close to home. Director Vincent Lancisi and his fine cast evoke the devastation wrought by unwelcome social change. Anyone in the audience vulnerable to the current economic fallout, anyone who might be having trouble adjusting to the harsh new realities of a harsh new world - and who isn't? - might find the show painful to watch.

Go see it anyway.

See it because this production has its own joys, chief among them an ensemble cast whose members know one another so well they are attuned to the smallest flicker of a fellow actor's eyelashes.

The show is about the aristocratic Ranevsky family, whose estate is about to be auctioned off to settle unpaid debts. The tragedy arises in part from the characters' inability to understand one another, despite their good intentions. The estate's owner is a spendthrift. The former peasant who offers his help can't see that his proposed solution - cutting down the estate's cherry orchard - would destroy all that the owners hold dear.

The 14-member cast excels at conveying what it means to be a family.

That rich and complicated texture is communicated in small gestures, in the way that actress Deborah Hazlett, playing the estate's wasteful owner, affectionately pats the stomach of her bewildered brother as she literally helps him walk into a frightening future.

It comes across in the amused glances of tolerant affection that fly between Hazlett and her character's two daughters when the eccentric family member Gayev (touchingly portrayed by Carl Schurr) delivers an ode to a bookcase.

It occurs once again when actress Rosemary Knower, as Anya's governess, Charlotta, unconsciously turns her back on a group of her fellow servants while explaining that she has no one to talk to.

The role of Lopakhin, the peasant-turned-businessman who first tries to help the family and then buys the estate out from under them, can be subject to different interpretations, including duplicitous villain and oblivious capitalist.

Lancisi's decision to cast African-American actor Craig Wallace as Lopakhin softens the character. When the peasant talks about how he just purchased the estate on which his grandparents were slaves, the audience can't help but empathize with his feeling of triumph. Though Lopakhin may be self-interested, Wallace gives him a large and generous heart.

As strong as this production is, though, it isn't without minor flaws. Each half of the show starts with added stage business - with the actors moving scenery into place in the first, and with a dance in the second - that doesn't advance the plot and is awkwardly executed. And though the running time has been trimmed to a relatively swift (for Chekhov) 2 1/2 hours, the pace still occasionally drags.

But go see Everyman's production anyway. This show won't help us pay our mortgages, but it might help us see our own, real-life situations more clearly. The Ranevsky family lost what it loved the most because it couldn't face reality.

We can make a different choice.

if you go

The Cherry Orchard runs through April 26 at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7 p.m. Sundays. $20-$38. 410-752-2208 or everymantheatre.org.

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