Poor Madame Ranevskaya. She is in debt, and the dire state of her affairs leaves her with little option but to auction her estate and its splendid cherry orchard. When presented with alternatives by the wily yet earnest businessman Lopakhin, Ranevskaya is immobile: she simply cannot forsake what took generations to build. In her thinking, to do anything other than wait for a miracle is to comply with the seemingly inevitable change about to consume her family and bring about its demise. And this is a comedy?
Well, that is debatable. Are we really meant to care much about Ranevskaya? In The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov gives us a number of clues as to what he thinks of her. She's wanton. She's gullible. She abandons her daughters to go off and squander their inheritance on her extravagant whims. She has no spine and cannot bear to say no even to the most unreasonable requests. She thinks primarily of herself and her nearly delusional woes.
David Epstein, whose direction I loved in ICTC's recent production of Arcadia, has chosen to direct a show that is a wart revealer of a play. It takes guts. His cast is talented and full of an earnest zeal to feel and express their heady emotions. They are costumed marvelously (with the exception of a few unfortunate handbags) by Michael Bevins and have a lovely and appropriate set on which to play, thanks to Ed McNamee.
But something is off. I have a suspicion as to what it is: Ranevskaya. As played by Cindy Keiter, Ranevskaya's ceaseless crying jags are given a gravitas they do not deserve. And from that core all the other characters seem to crash like sentimental dominoes into each other. There is such pregnancy of thought, such precious period delicacy loose onstage, that the production often feels as if there is something very serious afoot. But with such a hollow heart as Ranevskaya at its core, who can't help feel cheated by emotions that are at best misguided?
Chekhov added two little words to the title of his play. The full title is The Cherry Orchard, A Comedy. What he knew, but very few people have ever listened to, is that Ranevskaya is a silly, obnoxious woman. Chekhov wrote a play about social change, asserting that the maudlin sentimentality of the landed class is nothing more than the childish antics of spoiled brats incapable of sharing, unwilling to cast off their faulty sense of entitlement for a new world order. Epstein occasionally has his cast nearly there, but not quite.
It is difficult to tell actors not to feel or that what they're feeling is wrong and inappropriate. Every modern acting class points to the legitimacy of emotions as the truth behind acting. It is difficult to cut what you love. But look at what Chekhov said about the play's first production, in 1904: "How awful it is! An act that ought to take 12 minutes at most lasts 40 minutes. There is only one thing I can say: Stanislavsky has ruined my play for me." You might recognize the director's name. And yes, some of Chekhov's criticism could be aptly applied to ICTC's production.
His play could be timely, if only the production took a step to make it so. Do we sympathize with the Enron executives who lost the millions they unlawfully gained at the expense of their employees? Do we think it is reprehensible when Kathie Lee Gifford is ridiculed for using child laborers from Third World countries while her son Cody tromps around redefining "spoiled"? Do we all nod our heads in assent when President Bush tells us how much he sympathizes with the poor single moms of America? Of course not. This is the same point behind The Cherry Orchard.
That said, I love this company. They have a voice, they have style, and they love what they do. The pitch-perfect near miss of a proposal scene between Varya (Beth White) and Lopakhin (Gerry Lehane) is both delightful and painful. It alone is worth admission. White's Varya is well calibrated, dancing the difficult line between absurdity and genuine emotion with grace and ease. Varya is arguably the only character punished with a fate she does not deserve, and White does her justice, then swiftly moves on. Lehane's Lopakhin is a worthy and conflicted counterpart.
Indeed, ICTC is a company worth getting to know, even if this production lacks clarity of purpose.