Richard Baird and Amanda Evans in "The Cherry Orchard." Photo by Ken Jacques
By most reputable accounts, Anton Chekhov regarded the last play he wrote, “The Cherry Orchard,” as a comedy. Or at least as more of a comedy than a brooding drama in the fashion of much of his earlier work.
It would be a stretch to call North Coast Repertory Theatre’s new production of “The Cherry Orchard,” directed by David Ellenstein, a comedy, though it does deliver a few chuckles if not laughs in its two-plus-hours. Those are elicited more by a couple of supporting characters than by circumstances of the script itself (an adaptation by Jean-Claude van Itallie): the sotto voce mutterings of ancient manservant Firs (James Sutorius); the haplessness of clumsy clerk Yepikhodov (Jackson Goldberg); the magic tricks and ventriloquism of quirky governess Charlotta (Sofia Jean Gomez – always great to see her on the stage, by the way).
But “The Cherry Orchard” is not a mere Chekhovian tale of ennui in a crowded household. It’s rooted in the convergence of the old and the new in the Russia of 1903, when the aristocracy began to find itself on the way out and the bourgeoisie was emerging. The cultural and societal implications of this shift are what are most fascinating, and most enduring, about “The Cherry Orchard.”
It is, however, very deliberate storytelling. While the crux of the matter – prideful estate owner Lyubov Ranevskaya (Katie MacNichol) is on the verge of losing her property, including her beloved cherry orchard, to auction on account of unpaid debts – is articulated early in the going, there is more at stake. Much, much more.
Lyubov is not only in these dire straits, but she’s home from France, where a lover had been taking advantage of her, and also home confronting the terrible memory of the son she lost to drowning.
Daughter Anya (Riley Osborn), her “angel,” is home too, and in love with a perennial student, Peter Trofimov (Michael Raver), a leftist who pronounces amid all his revolutionary blather that he’s above love … though he isn’t.
Adopted daughter Varya (Amanda Evans), stern head of the household, is a prig and. so she says. a wannabe nun – mostly because the man she loves, the wealthy merchant Lopakhin (Richard Baird), is unable to or won’t propose marriage to her.
Lopakhin is really the central figure in “The Cherry Orchard,” a former serf on the estate who is now rich and powerful enough to be influencing the fate of the imperiled property.
But wait. There’s more.
The clumsy clerk is in love with wide-eyed housemaid Dunyasha (Katy Tang), who is in love with Yasha (Michael Louis Cusimano), a manservant and hanger-on of Lyubov’s who’s about as likable as a cherry pit.
Pishchick (Ted Barton), another landowner in debt, is determined to pry money out of Lyubov. He is likable in spite of that.
Intertwined and in conflict, they all parade on and off the North Coast Rep stage, complicating the story but doing so immaculately costumed (by Elisa Benzoni) and precisely directed (by Ellenstein).
Strong performances abound, Baird chief among them. His Lopakhin exemplifies the societal transformation at the time, and his inner conflicts are expressed with an eloquence true to Chekhov.
This “Cherry Orchard” is staged with veritable reverence for the play. It’s a classic produced with classical intentions.
“The Cherry Orchard” runs through April 2 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.