Times are changing, as they always are. There is a continuous struggle between fresh beginnings and archaic traditions, the new vs. the old, the elite vs. the working class and morality vs. boorishness. With all of these issues sweeping the modern United States through a memorable election, it is difficult to ignore the relevance of Roundabout Theatre Company’s idea to revive the best play about social change—Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. A masterpiece of Russian literature, The Cherry Orchard is a classic story about members of an aristocratic family. Upon their return from Paris, they have to face the reality that they are in massive debt and their beloved estate with its magnificent cherry orchard must be sold. Lopahin, played by Harold Perrineau, is a family friend who is trying to warn Lyubov Ranevskaya, played by Diane Lane, and her brother Leonid Gaev, played by John Glover, to rent out the estate as cottages. However, Lyubov refuses to engage in such plebian and low class ventures.
Eventually, the family members not only loses the estate and the beautiful garden, but also themselves and one another. A marvelously built set perfectly reflects this notion. The stage sits on a giant tree stump, representing an entire system of beliefs, traditions and customs and the rise of the socialistic middle class. A drama that reveals a personal tragedy of inaction and foolishness, The Cherry Orchard was Chekhov’s last play. It is a symbolic farewell to the life and established traditions of the elite, as well as to his own life.
The RTC’s production is a modern adaption written by Stephen Karam, a Tony Award-winning playwright for The Humans. Karam has proven to Broadway audiences that he is a talented writer whose gift is noticing the most incredible things in the most ordinary of situations. For The Cherry Orchard, his writing has shifted the focus from the prominent family members, to the secondary house help. By providing a different perspective, however, Karam damages Chekhov’s original text and message. When a classic play is about one particular aspect, trying to make it about something else causes an unbalanced and limiting mess.
Chekhov’s signature style consists of dramatic pauses in flow that represent more than just what is on the surface. These pauses are pervasive moments, where the characters have to face their own fears and actions and try to salvage themselves before drowning in their own personal abyss. Director Simon Godwin dries out those intimate moments and rushes the entire show in order to create an artificial feeling of suspense. But there should be no suspense in Chekhov’s work because his work is described as where “nothing ever happens, but everything happens all the time.” There is a painful routine of dull existence and bold apathy toward the future. By lacking that suspense, the writer depicts life in the most realistic way possible—as a dragging on of small events that lead into desperation. This production lacks clear focus and it affects every part of the work. Despite having a stellar parade of award-winning actors, the show fails to display unity.
The acting itself is good, especially Lane and Glover’s, but the depictions of these canonic characters appears to be one-dimensional. There is no space for the actors to really show who they are and what the forces behind their actions are. Due to the speed of the show, most of the words and movements of the actors lack authenticity and are almost mechanical. Last season, the Brooklyn Academy of Music brought a production of The Cherry Orchard done by the Russian troupe from St. Petersburg under the direction of Lev Dodin. It was a very minimalistic production, with the same set and costumes throughout the whole play. Although New York critics disapproved the production’s length and its lack of comic relief, looking back and comparing these two productions, there is one thing that the Russian version had as an advantage over the U.S. one—authenticity.
Karam and Godwin tried to create a piece that was more relatable and understandable to U.S. audiences. But Dodin’s version, preserving the original language and themes, was appealing to the audiences. Dodin was capable of creating a showcase of what made up a true Russian soul and how its torments are relevant not only in today’s Russia, but the United States as well. RTC’s version fails to demonstrate what it is about The Cherry Orchard that still keeps audiences interested and how a story about a family losing its estate is as socially enticing now as ever.
As all the family members assemble in the final scene to say goodbye to one other and to their house, it is clear to see that this is the most sympathetic and climactic moment of the play. The emotions are raw, the pain is pure and the realization of one’s actions looms over the soon-to-be-empty house. As everybody leaves, loyal and noble house-keeper Firs, played by the legendary Oscar and Tony-winner Joel Grey, is left behind alone. “They forgot about me,” he says, a line that is arguably one of the most memorable in contemporary theater.
To the sound of the cherry trees being cut in the background, Firs, the last standing memory of the past, slowly lies down on the floor in the middle of the wooden stunt. The light then fades out and the entire era falls into oblivion.