None other than Anton Chekhov himself comes out to introduce his play “The Cherry Orchard,” at Theater Emory through April 14. Donald McManus takes on the part of the great Russian playwright and gives a short pre-performance speech, reminding us that Chekhov was dying of tuberculosis when he wrote it. He also tells us Chekhov’s last words: given a glass of champagne on his deathbed, he took a sip and remarked, “It’s been a long time since I drank champagne.” Chekhovian to the very end.
This Chekhov sticks around throughout the show as a sort of ringmaster hovering over the action, orchestrating entrances and exits and even taking on bit parts. It’s an innovation that often feels more heavy-handed than revelatory, and other characters’ actions are often similarly writ large when smaller gestures would suffice. But it’s otherwise a strong production of a classic play.
In “The Cherry Orchard,” the Ranevsky estate is set to be auctioned off in order to settle an unpaid mortgage, and the family members are curiously inert, ineffective and indecisive about what to do in the face of impending disaster. The most reasonable option is presented by a friend and neighbor, the merchant (and former peasant) Lopakhin (James Donadio): chop down the family cherry orchard to build summer cottages for city dwellers.
But it’s clear that, though it may be practical, the family finds this solution unthinkably vulgar. Are they admirable in their principles and knowledge that some things have a value beyond monetary worth? Are they ludicrously pampered, impractical and ineffectual? (The orchard would be chopped down no matter what they decide.) Chekhov never answers exactly; the play, indeed every line, famously has a multiplicity of tones and potential implications.
The singularly Chekhovian balance between comedy and tragedy is nicely taken on by director Tim McDonough and his cast. But certain actions overwhelm the overarching sense of stillness and melancholy that should pervade the play. A leer and a kiss from the rakish Yasha (Cody Read) would be enough to suggest his relationship with the maid Dunyasha (Emily Kelypas), but here it becomes a grope and a bit of actual intercourse.
When the otherwise excellent Janice Akers, as Ranevskaya, is informed that the estate has been sold, she lies prostrate on the floor, an action that is not only hard to believe in a Russian aristocrat but also deprives us of seeing her face at the play’s most crucial moment. T. Daniel Draper does a nice job of bringing some physical comedy to the part of the klutzy clerk Yepikhodov, but there are too many pratfalls. A bit about his squeaky boots is made unnecessarily literal and clownish by the use of a squeaking device that sounds every time he takes a step. And, in general, the production’s Chekhov character seems to hang around too long. I’ve seen the play enough times to sort it all out, but the first scene in the nursery is a pretty crowded one already, and it can be confusing for first-time viewers. Adding an imaginary character, I think, probably makes it even more challenging and confusing for those not already familiar with the play.
Still, with so many large things about the production moving in the wrong direction, it’s surprising how many little, innovative details McDonough and his cast get beautifully right.
Ranevskaya, nearly every time she enters or leaves a room, glances up at the portrait of her deceased son. It’s a habit formed from unforgettable tragedy, but also by a mind that knows it will never be free of the past. The same character dramatically tears up a telegram from her lover in Paris to demonstrate to everyone that she is free from his control, but later, when the action moves on, she begins to piece the fragments together to see what it says.
The magic tricks and practical jokes of the deliciously strange governess Charlotta are given a nice “twist-of-the-knife” reading by Madeline Teissler, who imagines a Charlotta impatient and resentful of the self-aggrandizing and self-pitying ineffectiveness of her superiors. Designer Sara Culpepper’s set is dreamlike, simultaneously indoors and outdoors, its pervasive whiteness giving everything, including the cast, a sort of ghostly insubstantiality.
“The Cherry Orchard” has so many great roles that it could easily become anyone’s play, and in the end it’s Donadio’s excellent Lopakhin who seems to hold the center here. He’s by turns philosophical, self-conscious, self-deceiving and self-hating, expressing that uniquely Russian sense of a divided consciousness toward a country that one is both deeply connected to and utterly alienated from.
This play, like “Hamlet,” contains so much that it can seem infinite; it is so open and sprawling that there has probably never been a “perfect” production. But Atlanta productions of such great plays are all too rare, and Emory’s latest effort gets enough right that it’s well worth a visit.