Whatever else it is, The Cherry Orchard is first of all a social portrait—a panoramic picture of a society going through gigantic upheavals on the cusp of the 20th century. Including every class from the riffraff to the high and mighty, it narrates its many aborted love stories and plays out its de-melodramatized mortgage melodrama along sharply and subtly demarcated class lines. Gayev and Ranevskaya, the childish adults who own the great estate that will soon fall into their steward’s parvenu hands, are not the highest of the high, but close enough to have a flickering, half-aware sense of the grand manner. No one, not even the estate’s buyer, wants them to give it up; everyone adores them and wishes they would stay on. But the world doesn’t work that way any longer. Chekhov’s feat, in fact, is to have written a play in which there are no villains and no evil motives. It all turns out messily simply because it must; the social dynamics have changed, and everyone is now in a different position vis-à-vis everyone else. That’s reality.
The importance of social boundaries and class distinctions to The Cherry Orchard makes the Atlantic Theatre’s production something of a mishmash. Always hunting for the electricity of the present moment, this company has a quintessentially American obliviousness to the realities of the past. The confusion starts with Tom Donaghy’s new version, a playable but ear-grating muddle of contemporary celeb-speak and American colloquialism with lumps of that old-time poeticizing à la Constance Garnett bulging out all over it. Taking their cue from Donaghy’s constantly retuned pitch, the actors in Scott Zigler’s production resemble a modern-day crowd bustling through a shopping mall—a crowd so varied, however, that the presence among them of a few figures from pre-revolutionary Russia seems perfectly natural.
And in fact, those figures are the making of the evening. Because frankly, almost every Chekhov production these days is a mishmash; in acting terms, the last two Russian stagings I saw were every bit as ill-tuned as this one. Chekhov’s four great plays are large-scale works, with many roles and a multitude of details to be put in place; I don’t know that I can remember ever seeing a Chekhov production that I would call a complete success artistically. What stays in the mind is the recollection of two, three, or half a dozen fine performances from each venture, because Chekhov’s cast sizes and his appeal for actors mean that no production will be completely lacking; some actor or other is bound to have hit upon a way of entering Chekhov’s world and thriving there.
Zigler’s production offers three such performances, enough to sustain the ups and downs of a somewhat wayward evening. The first and most commanding is by Alvin Epstein as Firs, the old butler, now feeble and deaf, who remembers the estate’s grand tradition better than its owners. I normally recuse myself from writing about Epstein, who is a close friend and longtime colleague. But you don’t have to be a friend of his to see that here is an extraordinary actor, one whose exceptional presence has been sharpened through decades of mime and musical performance. You need only watch his Firs carry, from upstage to down, a heavy coffee service that has been left in the wrong place, and feel yourself gripped by panic, as if the likelihood of his dropping what is undoubtedly just a trayful of cheap prop dishes were a matter of life and death to you. Donaghy’s most outrageous alteration is the omission of Firs’s entire last speech, but no outrage is felt: Epstein, abetted by a particularly daring stroke of Zigler’s staging, can convey the full substance of that speech with no words at all.
Almost as fine is Larry Bryggman’s Gayev. Ranevskaya’s brother is a complex figure, alternately lucid and dithering, a man whose sensible instincts swerve easily into nonsensical jabber. This is a perfect fit for Bryggman, who, as Mamet’s Romance revealed, can be both a sturdy portrayer of psychologically tormented realistic figures and a giddy, deranged clown. His Gayev is both at once, and never has Gayev’s apostrophe to his childhood bookcase been so touchingly absurd.
Rounding off this trio of first-rate performances is Scott Foley’s Trofimov. Here is a handsome actor, TV-bred at that, who shows his acting skill by doing without his handsomeness. Stooped, squinting through metal-rimmed specs, his head shaved half bald, his scruffy student’s shirt half bloused out of his trousers, this is no pretty boy from TV land but Trofimov himself, devout in his idealism, helpless in his awe of Ranevskaya, eagerly seizing on every chance to indoctrinate Anya (a sweet, unaffected performance by Laura Breckenridge). You don’t need Trofimov’s blind faith in the future to see more stage work in Foley’s.
Beyond these three, Zigler’s production has some good small-part etching (Todd Weeks’s Yepikhodov, Mary McCann’s Charlotta, Peter Maloney’s Semyonov-Pishchik), and a good if conventional Varya from Diane Ruppe. But it also has the Atlantic tendency to play hard, loud, and bright, to smooth down the nuances. And in Chekhov the nuances are almost everything. Brooke Adams, looking beautiful in her elegant gowns, is a smooth, pain-free, grandeur-free Ranevskaya; Isiah Whitlock Jr., booming forcefully, is a loud, bright-toned empty shell of a Lopakhin. Accepting them as plausible parts of the story Chekhov tells is impossible; they belong in a new story that someone—perhaps Donaghy —should write. It’s hard to be moved by the drama of an old order dying when you can’t believe it was ever alive. But Epstein, Bryggman, and Foley, living in Chekhov’s world, will stay in my mind.