In a May 2016 interview with the Financial Times regarding his approach and ambition in theater direction, London-based director Simon Godwin states that he “likes these plays where there is no option but to get into the water with them.” He says, “I really enjoy speaking obliquely about today through the past…I think all great plays help us to understand how decisions we make personally have political implications.”
By appearances then, The Cherry Orchard – Chekhov’s 1904 play on the themes of cultural futility and the decline of the aristocratic class – should present an intriguing match for Godwin’s ambition. This current iteration has the added wrinkle of having been re-translated (from the literal Russian translation) by Stephen Karam, whose last play, The Humans, captured the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play.
While regarded as one of the classics of 20th century theater, The Cherry Orchard always has been a strange and tonally conflicted play. Anton Chekhov himself considered it a farce upon first writing it, and was somewhat dismayed when Stanislavski’s version on Broadway remolded it as tragedy. So, having gotten into the water with Godwin’s production of this complicated work – how was it?
Upon first immersion, it seems like it might be fine. Nico Muhly’s compositions emanate through the space pre-show. The stage is partially visible through a scrim, cast in moody shadows, foregrounded by a child-sized lay-out of an estate and a nursery-sized table with four tiny chairs. The stage’s surface is suggestive of a tree trunk, giving the sensation that the action may be played out atop a felled tree (scenic design by Scott Pask). All in all, promising.
Early on Godwin and Karam focus on the farcical version initially preferred by Chekhov – Susannah Flood, playing the maid Dunyasha, flutters about, shattering a saucer and breaking out an actual pratfall; Joel Grey, as the aging eccentric servant Firs, deadpans for the audience in round spectacles and mumbles his lines; the visiting and always-in-debt landowner Pischik, embodied with a jovial energy by Chuck Cooper, solicits the room for loans in an almost-giddy fashion.
The first sign of trouble in the production is midway through that madcap first scene. Ranevskaya (Diane Lane), who has returned this very night to her childhood home after five tumultuous years in Paris, reunites with the former tutor of her son (the boy drowned in a nearby river when he was seven). She is overcome, falling to her knees and wailing with sorrow, before she is able to recompose herself.
Chekhov paints his fading aristocrats rather broadly at times, so it’s a moment like this – a sudden dose of clarified emotion amid the sleep-deprived and forced cheeriness otherwise exuded by the family in their late-night homecoming – that should set into motion our alignment for experiencing the remainder of the play. We need to feel something for these characters if we’re to invest ourselves in their plight.
Unfortunately, we’re not given emotional access to the moment. Ms. Lane is not to blame – she’s generally fine, if a bit on the superficial level – but we don’t connect to her pain. It’s contrived and artificial—as if borne out of a different play. The production rushes us into the next comic bit, hoping we’ll ignore the hiccup.
But a cascading waterfall of other missteps follows this missed opportunity. The moments that tend to land are the clever quips (mostly by the servants). Karam’s translation has an ear for contemporizing the jokes, but otherwise the language falls curiously flat; the whimsy underscored by deep existential dissatisfaction that gives Chekhov’s language its height is, here, neutralized, placed in air quotes, and over-tightened when it should be looser, more free.
Despite a particularly strong effort by Harold Perrineau as the made-it-from-nothing interloper and businessman Lopakhin, his character spends the majority of the first act and most of the second reciting the major plot complication (“Guys, they’re going to sell your cherry orchard!”) without any real character development or support from the production at large. He, too, seems to be in a different play – a procedural of sorts, with big obvious complications offered up for the pleasure of banging home the resolution. But The Cherry Orchard isn’t really that kind of play – the majority of the resolution is awash in subtext and lives most richly on the emotional level that has already been abandoned by this production.
Further complicating things, the production utilizes a racially diverse cast in pointed ways, which makes this particular Cherry Orchard unique (on the one hand) and jarringly confusing (on the other). The actors of color have been cast, with one exception, as members of the servant class – those who represent, in the play, the rising middle class amid a changing Russia forty years after the mass emancipation of the serfs. Karam’s adaptation employs the word ‘slave’ (instead of ‘serf’) at one key juncture as Lopakhin delivers his redemptive monologue on why he decided to buy the estate.
But if this production is positioning itself to – as Godwin stated in his interview – “speak obliquely about today through the past,” the decision comes with unintended consequences. Yes, The Cherry Orchard is ultimately a play about change, but the fall of the aristocracy and rise of the serfs in Russia is a distinctly different cultural experience than the African-American experience in America, and to conflate the two has the disturbing effect of making Chekhov’s language feel (strangely) even more out of touch and old-fashioned than it already did. Not all change is the same change.
Coupled with this, there is a decided tentativeness in the staging that suggests that the production isn’t sure if it should fully acknowledge what it is making an attempt to do. As a result, it becomes almost impenetrable to read. When the cherry orchard finally falls, the audience (on my night of viewing) attempted to conjure the curtain down by beginning their applause even as Mr. Grey was entering the stage. Like his character, abandoned by the family he’s served, the audience gets left behind too.