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Dancing on the edge of disaster

The last great production of The Cherry Orchard I saw was at Steppenwolf, nearly 20 years ago. Tina Landau turned the company’s upstairs theater into a near-immersive experience, with Riccardo Hernández’s set design incorporating swathes of lacy white cloth all around us—perfect for Chekhov’s characters, who spend so much time hiding from visible truths and harsh reality, lost in filmy dreams of the past.

That show went up right after the reelection of George W. Bush, and as I noted for the Reader at the time, “It’s to Chekhov’s credit if this production resonates with our sense that we’re on the brink of horrifying change, but Landau doesn’t push it.” 

Oh, sweet summer child—to think that was the worst imaginable development in American politics. (To quote another great Steppenwolf production—Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County—“Thank god we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”)

The Cherry Orchard
Through 4/30: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Sun 4/16 and Tue 4/25 7:30 PM; ASL interpretation Fri 4/28; audio description Sat 4/29 2 PM; Spanish subtitles Sat 4/29 8 PM; open captions Sun 4/30 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$100

Robert Falls’s current staging at the Goodman is a valedictory of sorts. It’s the last of the major Chekhov plays he’s directed there (after Three Sisters in 1995, The Seagull in 2010, and Uncle Vanya in 2017), and the last time he’s directing a show that he programmed as artistic director. (Susan V. Booth stepped into Falls’s role, which he held for 35 years, last fall. The upcoming 2023-24 season, which was just announced, is the first she’s assembled as artistic director.) 

Although the characters may indulge in sentimentality, the production is clear-eyed, funny, and just this side of terrifying in its prescience and relatability. In other words, it’s just about what the good doctor ordered. 

Chekhov (whose day job was as a physician) always famously maintained that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy. And indeed, it’s stuffed with pratfalls, sharp-elbowed dialogue (the translation is by George Calderon; Falls also chose Calderon’s version of The Seagull for his production), and just general human ridiculousness, vanity, and vulnerability. It’s a play that is very much about the death of old orders and old worlds, and that is perhaps why it landed with me even harder this time than with Landau’s lovely Steppenwolf production. (The play was also the last one Chekhov wrote before dying of tuberculosis in 1904 at 44.)

But are the old orders actually dying, or are they just taking new forms with new players?

Lyubov Ranevskaya (Kate Fry) has returned to her country estate in Russia after years abroad in Paris—an exile she chose after her young son, Grisha, drowned in the nearby river. She’s running out of road and money (as so many wealthy Russians were after serfdom was abolished in 1861), but no matter how hard Lopakhin (Kareem Bandealy) tries to warn her that she needs to sell the cherry orchard to build rental cottages in order to keep herself and her family afloat, she dances away from the topic. Literally—even as the coffers are almost empty, she decides to throw a ball.

Lopakhin, the son of a family of serfs who labored for Lyubov’s family for generations, isn’t hard-hearted. Indeed, early on he waxes nostalgic about the kindness he received from Lyubov when he was a young abused child. But he’s also a pragmatist who knows how things can change for the worse in a hurry, and he loses patience with the state of denial that Lyubov, her layabout brother Gayev (Christopher Donahue), and pretty much everyone associated with them occupies.

Formerly rich people losing their ill-gotten gains and having to make their way in the world like other schlubs may not seem like a particularly tragic proposition. (Oh horrors—Gayev may have to give up playing billiards all day to work in a bank!) But the genius of Chekhov is that he knows humans can’t exist without dreams. The trick is figuring out where the line is between a dream and a delusion. And Falls’s production dances (and shouts and stumbles and sings) back and forth on that line with surefooted brio. 

Characters fall in and out of love and lust. A tormented perpetual student, Trofimov (Stephen Cefalu), who was tutor to Grisha, rightly calls out the rich and educated classes for their torpor. “The overwhelming majority of the educated people I know seek nothing, do nothing, and are incapable of meaningful work.” Yet he too seems frozen by an idealized future in his head, with which he woos Anya (Raven Whitley), Lyubov’s daughter. It’s a match that appears doomed to failure, inasmuch as Trofimov is given to saying sweet nothings such as, “Anya and I are above such things as love.”

But at least he makes a play for her. Lopakhin and Varya (Alejandra Escalante), Lyubov’s adopted daughter, can never connect despite the obvious attraction they have for each other. (Varya’s ever-present ring of keys marks her as the chatelaine of the estate.) Dunyasha (Amanda Drinkall), the high-spirited maid, throws herself away on the foppish Yasha (Felipe Carrasco), overlooking the extremely accident-prone bookkeeper Semyon (Will Allan), who is besotted with her.

Through it all, Gayev and Lyubov ignore the obvious ticking time bomb: the impending auction of the estate. They clutch at straws. Perhaps a great-aunt who’s never had much use for them will give money? Maybe Gayev can scrounge up a promissory note? Maybe Anya will give up Trofimov and choose a rich suitor? (At one point, Fry’s Lyubov shows up in a green velvet dress highly reminiscent of the one Scarlett O’Hara made out of her curtains when seeking funds to save Tara. Kudos to costume designer Ana Kuzmanic for that sly shout-out.)

Meantime, the obvious answer is right in front of them: sell the orchard to save the rest of the estate. But the truth is a lot of people don’t want to face change, incremental or otherwise. They want the idealized past over the disagreeable and uncomfortable present and the terrors of the future. It doesn’t matter that the past they worship included widespread slavery for others and plenty of personal grief of their own. (Todd Rosenthal’s box set in the first and last scenes, depicting the childhood nursery with high ceilings and golden stars on blue cloudy walls, makes it appear as if the characters are moving through a diorama of their past.)

Fry’s Lyubov is both utterly annoying in her determination to avoid hard financial discussions and utterly sympathetic in her impulsive generosity to others. (Which, we learn, led to disaster in Paris as well when she gave her money to a scheming lover, who still importunes her with letters.) As Anya’s gun-toting, magic-trick-performing governess, Charlotta (Janet Ulrich Brooks, in splendid form), observes, “Lyubov Ranevskaya is constantly mislaying things. She’s even mislaid her own life.”

Is she so different from Americans in the 21st century, though? We live in a country where individual generosity exists in people who flinch in horror at the thought of “those people” gaining more of a toehold on the economic ladder. Idealizing a past that never was in the name of protecting white-innocence narratives is a major national pastime. 

If you heard a well-meaning liberal say during the Trump years, “This isn’t who we are!” you know what I’m talking about, and you may wince when Gayev says, “I’m a man of the eighties, you know. A good liberal. People don’t speak highly of those times, but I can safely say, I’ve paid quite the price for my convictions.” That his life of leisure came at the price of others’ servitude isn’t something he’s quite grasped. 

Trofimov can be a clueless blowhard in his romantic dealings, but he’s not entirely wrong when he proclaims, “This country is two hundred years behind the times, and we still haven’t come to terms with our history; we just sit around and philosophize, or complain that we’re bored, or get drunk. But if there’s one thing that’s clear to me, it’s this: if we want to live in the present, we have to atone for our past and break with it.” (One also wonders, of course, how well a newly rich man of business like Lopakhin would himself adjust to the realities of living in Soviet Russia in the future.)

Breaking with the past is easy to demand, but it seems nearly impossible to do. And yet, Chekhov and Falls both understand that nobody is a villain in this story, and create empathy for everyone onstage. (You’d be hard pressed to find a better ensemble than the one Falls has assembled here.) And that is perhaps why, despite the underlying mournfulness, it’s still a comedy. Nobody dies, except—spoiler alert!—Firs, the ancient butler (played to perfection by Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan, who played Gayev in Landau’s production).

Falls offers those of us who’ve followed his work for decades a reminder of what he built at the Goodman. The physical comedy and emotional shifts in The Cherry Orchard may strike some viewers as overly broad or unmotivated, but to me, it felt pretty much in line with who these characters are—and more than once, I felt a little tickle or pricking at the back of my brain reminding me that I’m not that different from them, no matter what my own pretensions and professed values may be. 

The orchard goes under the axe. The family moves on to Moscow and Paris and other parts. Whether they’ve finally learned to accept the here and now remains an open question. But they’re continuing on. As we all must. Sometimes survival is its own act of resistance against despair.

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