The Cherry Orchard: the perfect theatrical meditation for Spring

Corina Akeson is playing Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard.

Corina Akeson is a serious—and seriously underused—talent, as she proves once again playing Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard.

Spring aches. So does this delicate production of The Cherry Orchard.

Spring is about beauty—cherry blossoms, for instance. It’s also about ephemerality: those blossoms don’t last and neither do our lives, loves, or ways of being.

It’s no wonder that playwright Anton Chekhov sets the opening scene of The Cherry Orchard in the early spring. The glamorous, aristocratic Ranevskaya is returning to her family’s estate in the country. She and her brother Gaev can’t afford to pay the mortgage and may lose the ancestral property. Lopakhin, a successful businessman whose father was a serf, suggests a way out: the family should cut down the estate’s wondrous but only fitfully productive cherry orchard and lease the land so that members of Russia’s growing middle class can build summer cottages on it. Ranevskaya’s response will lead to her downfall: “Summer cottages. Summer people. Forgive me, but it’s all so tawdry.”

Ranevskaya is so attached to the splendour of a life that’s slipping away that she can’t bear to consider any alternatives. Like her worldview, the alternatives that Ranevskaya is presented with are also paradoxical combinations of attractiveness and limitation. Lopakhin’s summer-cottage suggestion is well intentioned, but, as the story evolves, his commodifying approach also shows its vulgar, reductive side.

And there’s a third major player. Trofimov, who was once the tutor to Ranevskaya’s son, who drowned, is now an eternal university student—and budding Bolshevik. When he’s courting Ranevskaya’s daughter Anya, Trofimov points out that the way of life that Ranevskaya is so fond of was built on slavery. You can feel the exhilaration of Trofimov’s zeal, the thrill of the new world he anticipates. But, even though Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard 13 years before the Russian Revolution, in the play, he hints at the cruelty that will poison Trofimov’s dream: the idealist doesn’t believe in love.

As The Cherry Orchard unfolds, we watch these and other characters negotiate love and social position. Dunyasha, a maid who aspires to aristocratic status, constantly comments on the sensitivity of her nature. Ranevskaya’s adopted older daughter Varya wants to marry the businessman Lopakhin and he wants to marry her, but they are both frozen, unable to make a move.

So, as we watch The Cherry Orchard, we meditate on the characters’ frailty, on their touching, often misguided attempts to find happiness and create coherence.

To make this work, you need to have a spacious production, a production that has the courage to let us simply observe, and that is exactly what director William B. Davis delivers. No one in his remarkably consistent amateur cast is desperate to entertain: to a greater or lesser extent, they all have the confidence to simply be.

Although many people don’t realize it, Chekhov is also a very, very funny playwright and Chekhov’s debate with Konstantin Stanislavski, The Cherry Orchard’s first director, is legendary: Stanislavski framed the play as a tragedy, but Chekhov insisted that it was a comedy.

Both men were right. When the maid Dunyasha rebuffs the romantic overtures of a clerk named Yepikhodov, he says that at least he now knows the answer to the question of whether or not he should shoot himself. Suicide is no joke, but luckless Yepikhodov’s melodramatic statement is.

And that’s another triumph of director Davis’s production: he and his company hit the sweet spot in the mix of comedy and tragedy.

A number of individual performances contribute to this success. Corina Akeson makes a luminous Ranevskaya. If you’re tempted to think that the character’s refusal to cut down her cherry orchard is trivial, wait until you see the look in Ranevskaya’s eyes when she first gazes at the freshly blooming trees upon her return home. Akeson is a woefully underused talent. She deserves to be performing roles like this on major stages.

I also love the work that Lesli Brownlee and Christine Iannetta are contributing as Ranevskaya’s daughters Anya and Varya. Brownlee’s delivery is a miracle of simplicity and Iannetta’s contribution is every bit as humble and rewarding.

Chris Walters brings intellectual vivacity to Trofimov, the former tutor. Martha Ansfield-Scrase seamlessly inhabits Dunyasha the foolish maid, and Sean Anthony is downright hilarious as Yepikhodov, the hapless clerk.

It’s a large cast, but I also want to particularly single out Bronwen Smith. Smith plays Charlotta, one of the richest characters of the bunch. Charlotta, who is Anya’s governess, is rootless: the offspring of circus performers, she has no idea whether or not her parents were married and she doesn’t know how old she is. “I don’t know anything,” she says. And Smith gets a laugh on the line—because she delivers it with such skillful simplicity.

The lack of a full back wall in Tracy-Lynn Chernaske’s simple set contributes to some sound problems, but costumer Julie White delivers. There’s a whole lot of pleasure to be had from just being in the presence of Ranevskaya’s apricot ball gown and her tailored plaid travelling jacket.

Watching this production of The Cherry Orchardis the perfect way to spend a spring evening. Meditative. Luxurious. Melancholy.

THE CHERRY ORCHARD By Anton Chekhov. Directed by William B. Davis. Produced by The Smoking Gun Collective. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Saturday, May 5. Continues until May 19.

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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