When Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard debuted at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1904, no one could decide just what sort of a play it was. Chekhov sent a letter to Stanislavsky revealing that he had written “a comedy: in certain places even a farce.” No, Stanislavsky responded, “It is a tragedy.” Meyerhold called it “as abstract as a Tchaikovsky symphony.” Gorky dismissed it as “Nothing new.”
It’s Chekhov’s view that director Andrei Belgrader draws on for his brisk, winning, and oddly unaffecting version of the play, now running at Classic Stage Company, in a streamlined translation by John Christopher Jones. Jones and Belgrader have pruned much verbal foliage and several mustier jokes, whittling down Orchard until it runs just over two hours, with only a single intermission. This speedy evening marks the final entry in Classic Stage’s Chekhov Cycle, a commitment to produce all the major works—Ivanov apparently didn’t make the cut.
Belgrader establishes a jocular tone in the first scene, which features several pratfalls by the bumbling clerk Epikhodov (Michael Urie), one swoon by the flighty maid Dunyasha (Elisabeth Waterston), and much excitable mumbling courtesy of John Turturro as Lopakhin, a peasant turned self-made millionaire. Admittedly, those millions are in rubles, but he’s still far more financially secure than the owners of the titular land: Ranevskaya (Dianne Weist), her brother Gaev (Daniel Davis), and her daughter Anya (Katherine Waterston). Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya (Juliet Rylance) tries to keep costs down, but to no avail. The house and the orchard must be sold.
That question of who will pay the mortgage could lend itself to melodrama, but Chekhov congratulated himself with finally creating something more sophisticated—a plot that didn’t require a gunshot to resolve it. In fact, The Cherry Orchard is perhaps Chekhov’s greatest structural achievement. Its collage of overlapping voices and concerns never settles on a protagonist, an antagonist, or a single focus. This is play as mosaic.
Because of its pace and efficiency, Belgrader’s amiable production highlights this extraordinary construction—its flurry of exits and entrances, its array of devices and desires. Yet despite its very able cast, this Orchard rarely transcends the realm of blithe comedy, its symbolic content all but effaced in the bustle, just as several of its sound effects are drowned out by street noise. Nor do the performances, pleasant though they are, conjure much pathos, save for a poignant scene at the play’s end when Lopakhin once again fails to propose to Varya. Turturro seems more centered in this scene than elsewhere in the play, and Rylance again reveals herself as a generous and discerning actress.
Chekhov had a difficult time writing The Cherry Orchard. His tuberculosis had worsened and digestive problems had weakened him further. Sometimes he could only manage a few lines a day. In the midst of its composition, he wrote to his wife, “Every sentence I write seems to serve no purpose, and no need whatever.” Yet as he worked toward the play’s conclusion, he became increasingly pleased. “The last act will be merry,” he wrote, “indeed the whole play will be light and merry.” Belgrader’s production captures, adeptly, that merriment and that lightness, but not the suffering that underlies it, the fading, the falling, the failing that render its fruits so bitter and so sweet.