Chekhov in Harlem

My Friday night date has come down with the flu. There goes a perfectly good night of dinner and theater. I sit there, dejected, wishing there was some creative way to use my theater tickets another time, knowing I must put my shoes on. Am I glad I got off the sofa. Duty took me to the Harlem School of the Arts, but Classical Theatre of Harlem's production of The Cherry Orchard kept me there. This cast of seasoned veterans and up-and-comers is a great reason to fight C train woes and head uptown for a great theater experience.

In Chekhov's classic 1903 play, a former "master" returns to her estate to find that the property is to be sold to pay the Renevskaya family's debts. This was a familiar situation throughout Russia after the 1861 Emancipation Declamation that freed the serfs but also changed the economy and closed the gap between the nobility and the working class. Chekhov's grandfather was himself a serf who purchased his freedom as well as his family's.

As the Renevskayas halfheartedly ponder how they might raise the money to pay their debts, Lopakhin, a family friend, suggests they chop down the orchard and lease the land in pieces by building summer cottages. The family dismisses the idea, but when the estate finally goes up for auction, Lopakhin buys it, much to the surprise and disdain of the Renevskayas and their circle. Both Lopakhin's father and grandfather had been slaves on the estate years before.

The night was full of talent. For instance, Earle Hyman played the 87-year-old servant Firs, who offers great comic relief as he shuffles into a room and mumbles his way in and out of conversations. He also represents a time that no longer exists, since he is a serf who never wants to be released.

Every choice or step Hyman makes onstage seems deliberate but not overplanned. His impressive career has found him onstage so often that it seems his body won't steer him in a bad direction or into a choice that doesn't work. The difference between Hyman and some of his younger colleagues is stage maturity. There is a serenity in one's performance when the stage is your second home and has been for over half your life.

By contrast, Chandra Thomas, who plays Anya, the youngest daughter of the estate's matriarch, Lyubov (Petronia Paley), has moments of natural grace onstage that make her easy to watch, but not every moment of her performance feels comfortable. There are times where her character is a part of the scene taking place but is not the focal point of the action. In these moments she appears over-focused. She does not pull attention from the center of the action, but there is a subtlety that is lost in her performance, a weakness that may iron itself out as she spends more time onstage.

Most impressive was Wendell Pierce as Lopakhin

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