The Cherry Orchard

Written by Anton Chekhov
Adapted and Directed by Eric Parness
Beckett Theater at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
212-279-2400

Adapting Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard must be almost as challenging as an all-night chess match with Garry Kasparov. This complex study of social change, upper-class denial and the inevitability of suburbia demands a calculated strategy and iron will. While Resonance Ensemble makes a valiant attempt with its updated rendition at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theater, the uneven results force the group, and director Eric Parness, into a stalemate.

Aristocratic spendthrift Lubov Ranevsky and her teenage daughter Anya have just returned to their estate after five years in Paris. Lubov’s brother, Leonid, and her adopted daughter, Varya, are there to greet the weary travelers, but this is not a happy reunion. Lubov and her family — and their entire team of servants — are in a state of angst over the imminent loss of the family’s nationally known cherry orchard, which is to be auctioned off to pay the mortgage on the estate. Lopakhin, a close family friend who rose from the ranks of peasantdom to become a successful merchant, warns Lubov that the loss of the orchard is unavoidable. He suggests cutting down the beloved trees, building a subdivision of cottages and renting them out, insisting that the new real estate will transform the land into a veritable cash cow. Lubov and her brother won’t hear of it, though, and instead choose to cross their fingers, throw a wild dinner party and hope for the best.

Parness, who adapted Orchard from Julius West’s translation, understands the play’s thematic core but has difficulty getting at its emotional underpinnings. Updating the story from turn-of-the-20th-century Russia to the American South of the 1940s is a promising device, given that both settings bare repercussions from a recent change in social order. But while the parallels between the Russian emancipation of the serfs and our own Emancipation Proclamation may be intriguing, Parness’s comparison is inconsistent. Consequently, we’re given characters with Southern drawls and a proclivity for New Orleans jazz, who trade in rubles and reference Moscow.

The cast lacks energy as a whole, although individually some of the actors do have their moments. Chris Ceraso scores laughs as Lubov’s billiards-obsessed brother, and Jessica Myhr captures Anya’s innocence with her delightfully blank expressions. Elizabeth A. Davis’s haunted gaze draws our sympathy for Varya, a woman with few options who waits endlessly for a marriage proposal that may never come. James Ware turns in the evening’s most commanding performance as the capitalistic Lopakhin, bringing life to an otherwise static bunch. Susan Ferrara, who plays the matriarchal Lubov, shoulders an admittedly heavy burden as the central character, but she simply fails to draw us into Lubov’s plight. We know this well-to-do woman is unstable, with an emotional need to fritter her money away whenever someone needs a handout, but Ferrara gives us no reason to believe it.

Legend has it that Chekhov, who wrote The Cherry Orchard as a comedy, was horrified when famed director Constantin Stanislavski first interpreted Orchard as a tragedy. The play has since found its bearings in both genres, depending on the director’s whim. Parness’s take lies somewhere in the middle. Like any stalemate, it’s not really a loss, but it’s not a win either.

***

Originally published in Show Business, October 2007

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