Picks and Pits

ACT's Cherry Orchard serves up a feast of characters and images; An Inspector Calls is merely a visual feast

Go ahead, stroll casually into the Geary Theater, where American Conservatory Theater's rewarding production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (directed by Barbara Damashek) has just opened, and try remaining indifferent to set designer Kate Edmunds' bold and provocative vision of the nursery of a Russian estate in which the play begins. If you're anything like me -- or the hapless characters who soon take the stage -- you'll feel dwarfed, thrilled, and quite happily cowed by the sight in front of you: At stage right stands an enormous, oversize rocking horse; at stage left, a bookcase looms to a terrifying height. It's a mythic environment calculated to dominate -- to turn people into toys and grown-ups into children -- and it sets the perfect tone for this drama of adults who are tragically unable to cope with a changing world.

No one fits in this nursery, whose only other significant furnishing is a tiny, child-size desk. And none of the people whose play this is fits the world so vividly represented on the Geary stage. Either they're hopelessly tied to the supposed glories of the past, when the family possessed apparently limitless wealth, or they're awkward pragmatists of a present that seems much like our own, where the only real concern is the bottom line.

Director Damashek increases our sense of disorientation by replacing the play's traditional beginning -- a straightforward exposition of the family's imminent arrival -- with a dream sequence: Lopakhin (Jack Wetherall) sleeps slumped against a wall and conjures a child (presumably the estate owner's young son, who drowned six years previously) riding atop the gigantic horse. The boy (played alternately by David Jacobs and Steven Philip Nordberg) then clambers down, runs about the nursery, and switches on a set of electric trains before scampering out. The model train's whistle is replaced by a louder one, recognizably real, and Dunyasha the maid (Adria Woomer-Stewart) enters and wakes Lopakhin. We are on notice that real life will be mingled with dreams and shaded by nostalgic fantasy.

As one of the fathers of modern drama, Chekhov is duly acknowledged for his genius in representational drama: for plucking small kernels of whimsical hope and abject despair from everyday speech (beautifully contemporized in Paul Schmidt's trim new translation), and for placing the concerns of real people from all levels of society at center stage. But, as demonstrated brilliantly by ACT's creative production team (along with Edmunds' set is Peter Maradudin's lighting, Beaver Bauer's costumes, and Stephen LeGrand's sound, with additional music by Conrad Susa), real life does not have to mean kitchen sink. It does not have to be drab, and it can glory in the magical properties of the stage. Chekhov, after all, was going for emotional reality, which is always a heightened and distorted version of the flat, everyday world.

The slatted background shows an orchard in full flower: It's May in the Russian countryside, and Liubov Ranyevskaya (Gordana Rashovich) is returning after five disastrous years in Paris. The homecoming is bittersweet as the estate, in the family for generations, is in imminent danger of being sold to pay off extensive debts. This is an aristocratic clan whose values prohibit such vulgarities as work, and whose fortune has been consumed by constant waste and squandering. As the ancient butler Firs (Gerald Hiken) notes sadly, "no one remembers" how to turn the orchard's yield, which once sustained the estate all year long, into profit. Liubov herself is incapable of saving money, and, along with her brother, Leonid Gayev (Ken Ruta), and the other members of her extended family -- her daughter, Anya (Tina Jones), and adopted daughter, Varya (Michelle Morain) -- ignores Lopakhin's warnings and suggestions.

A prosperous businessman whose father and grandfather once toiled as serfs on the estate, Lopakhin is this Cherry Orchard's most deeply romantic character. He wants to save the family and has come up with a scheme whereby Liubov can restore the ancestral wealth by subdividing the property and putting it up for sale. Times are changing, he tells her, and she and her brother must change with them. Of course Liubov and Leonid simply dance, play, and reminisce the short Russian summer away until in the end, the land is lost and the cherry orchard is cut down.

Meanwhile Damashek and her able ensemble serve up a feast of characters, images, and ideas. As Liubov, Rashovich is liquid in her inability to hold onto money, languorous in her attempts to influence the course of events. She is like a character caught in a perpetual dream who can neither run nor take any action to prevent the oncoming disaster.

Ruta is poignant, charming, and winsome as the wastrel brother Leonid, a poet at heart whose musings make no sense to his listeners, and whose efforts to memorialize significant events are continually shushed.

I found Wetherall's drab and colorless Lopakhin troublesome at first, but a performance that seemed initially lackluster took on subtle nuances as the evening progressed and ultimately made excellent sense dramatically. This is a man who is, after all, virtually invisible to the people he idolizes. Liubov refuses to entertain his solution -- "Cut down the orchard? Oh, my dear man, you don't understand" -- and only seems to see him when she wants to push him into marriage with Varya.

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