Thursday, October 28, 2010

An Orchard, Cleveland Play House/Case Western Reserve University

(Kelli Ruttle as Ranyevskaya and Eva Gil as Varya)

If people were like trees, we’d never forget a single thing. That is a beauty of nature: no matter the storms it endures, it continually replicates itself in every detail, even as it grows. Meanwhile, humans are destined to get older and bigger but misremember important occurrences from the past, be tortured by others, and just flat out forget still more. From that standpoint, compared to nature we’re not even qualified to be a respectable weed.

In The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov marries those thoughts in, what for him, was a comical play verging on farce. It’s the story of an aristocratic but now penniless Russian family whose vast estate, with its fabulous orchard of cherry trees, will be auctioned off to pay their debts. While being stabbed with piercing moments of clarity about their pasts, and the hurts that reside there, they must deal with the present—and with glorious natural surroundings that seem to mock their meager attempts at coping.

In a modest bow to the many interpretations of this play, this Cleveland Play House production in association with Case Western Reserve University is simply called An Orchard. As it turns out, that is apt since the shortened title is mirrored by the fact that the number of characters has been substantially pruned, while also trimming some of the emotional wallop that this story can generate.

Director Mark Alan Gordon, who compiled the adaptation along with the graduate ensemble of 2012, helps his cast find much of the humor in Chekhov’s words. But the young actors miss a number of the nuances that should lift this tale above the ordinary.

When Lubov Andreyenva Ranyevskaya, nicknamed Lovey, returns to her family’s estate, along with her brother Gaev and her grown daughter Anya, the atmosphere is bittersweet. Gathering in the child’s nursery, a memory-inducing setting if there ever was one, Lovey is confronted with the ugly current reality by Lopakhin, a merchant who formerly worked as a servant on the grounds of the estate. He urges Lovey to divide the estate into small parcels, to sell as plots for vacation homes.

But Lovey is a woman caught between forces she doesn’t understand. Spending freely and irresponsibly has been her way of life, and now that change has arrived she can’t bend with the wind. As a result she, her family and friends, and even servants are ripe for destruction.

In the complex role of Ranyevskaya, Kelli Ruttle hits a variety of separate notes with great style, and her rendition of "When the World Was Young" at the start of Act Two is affecting. But there isn’t enough subtext to convey this woman’s full and often contrary persona. Flamboyant and haunted, generous and controlling, Lovey is really a piece of work, which is only glimpsed here in part.

As Lopakhin, Dan Hendrock has energy to burn as this driven and aspiring man. And his delivery feels a bit stilted and considered, as it would for a man who feels somewhat out of his element. But in his climactic scene, when he announces his purchase of the estate, there is joy and amazement but not enough anger borne of his rage at his humble history in that place.

Andrew Gorell, in the role of Gaev, enjoyably trumpets his wordy flourishes, but he doesn’t quite capture the childish arrogance of a man who has never fully grown up. Michael Herbert essays the “eternal student” Trofimov with a rumpled sort of idealism, and the adopted daughter/estate manager Varya is played by Eva Gil with repressed anger. But she could do more with the moment when she throws her house keys down in disgust, before she is about to be thrown out the door. Yan Tual triggers some chuckles as Firs, the nearly deaf manservant, but his shuffling old man schtick, although a nice homage to Tim Conway, gets a little tired.

At first glance, the set design by Jill Davis is stunning, with audience seating arranged in a circle, in a tall space draped with heavy curtains and lighted with chandeliers. There are also several birch tree trunks that extend from floor to ceiling, bringing the essence of nature into these living quarters.

Upon reflection, however, the set is less appealing since it does not suggest a nursery in any significant way. And the trees, while amazing to look at, seem firm and stalwart—just the opposite of cherry blossoms that are fragile and easily destroyed, which is part of the playwright’s central metaphor.

An Orchard is just that, one more take on The Cherry Orchard that is delightful in places, but that feels a bit too condensed to be thoroughly satisfying.

An Orchard

Through November 6 at the Cleveland Play House,

produced in association with Case Western Reserve

University, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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