fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Chekhov's 'Orchard' springs to life at OSF

As the old actor's joke goes, "Death is easy. Comedy is hard."

Too often, the dramatic work of Russian writer Anton Chekhov is presented as dreary, ineffective people caught up in situations that they cannot or will not change. The passion and generosity of Chekhov's Russian characters become lost in their despair and inaction.

That is definitely not the case with OSF's production of "The Cherry Orchard," adapted and directed by departing Artistic Director Libby Appel. Appel's approach to the play and its characters is warm, loving and ironic. Starting with a new, literal translation by Allison Horsley (who teaches theater at the University of Denver), which Appel then turned into a sparkling adaptation, this "Cherry Orchard" is Libby Appel's gift to the Chekhov canon and to the Festival.

"The Cherry Orchard" is set in 1903. Serfs have been emancipated, large estates have been divided. There is a growing mercantile class made up from the descendents of these serfs. The old aristocracy's inherited wealth and income from their estates is steadily disappearing.

As the play opens, the beautiful Lyubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya (Judith-Marie Bergan) is returning from five years in Paris, where she fled after the death of her husband and young son. Lyubov is exuberant, generous and incredibly impractical. While she understands that there is no more money, that the estate with its beloved cherry orchard will be sold at auction to cover outstanding debts, she simply does not wish to deal with it. It is too overwhelming, too devastating.

But the sale of the estate and the orchard will impact every member of the family. Lyubov's 50-year-old brother, Gayev (Richard Howard), has never had a life--never married, never held a job, never paid much attention to the world around him. His obsession, is billiards and every conversation, every interaction is reduced to a pool shot. Lyubov's daughter, Anya (Christine Albright), now in her late teens, is trained for nothing and yet open to whatever the future may hold. Lyubov's melancholy adopted daughter, Varya (Gwendolyn Mulamba), has attempted to keep the estate going in her mother's absence with no money and no direction.

The repercussions of the sale ripple down through the family's retainers and friends. Lopakhin (Armando Duran), formerly a serf on the estate and now a prosperous businessman, adores Lyubov, is devoted to her family. His scheme for subdividing the orchard into plots for vacation homes is both brutal and visionary. It would, indeed, allow Lyubov to keep the estate--but at what cost? Lyubov simply doesn't want to hear it.

There is the neighbor, Pischik (Anthony Heald), always optimistic and always broke. There is Petya (Gregory Linington), the former tutor of the dead son, also devoted to Lyubov, in love with Anya. He is a perpetual student, confident that the future holds a "higher truth." There are the servants, Anya's outlandish German governess Charlota (Robynn Rodriguez), the dream-spinning maid Dunyasha (Nancy Rodriguez), the old butler Firs (Richard Elmore), the fumbling bookkeeper Yepikhodov (Christopher Duval), and the slithering valet Yasha (John Tufts).

These are very real people on stage because Appel has created distinct, multi-faceted personalities for each character. We come to know them very well and really care about what will become of them.

As Chekhov's play unfolds, it seems that nothing actually happens. But, in fact, everything happens. the play's end, the cherry orchard is sold, the estate gone and each of these souls must now move on to whatever is in store for them. Who will make a life for themselves? Who will simply allow life to happen?

The set, designed by visiting designer Rachel Hauck and lit by James F. Ingalls, is spare, slightly down-at-the-heels, haunting. Equally haunting original music is by Todd Barton. The lush costumes are by Deborah M. Dryden.

Appel has repeatedly said that Chekhov is her favorite playwright and she considers "The Cherry Orchard" his greatest play. She says that as she adapted "The Cherry Orchard," she found her own voice within Chekhov's syntax, within the play's context. It was such an exhilarating experience that she now wants to adapt all of Chekhov plays.

Judging by this adaptation, that will be a wonderful gift to us, indeed.