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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Laila Robins Shines in Shakespeare Theatre Adaptation of The Cherry Orchard

Also see Bob's review of The Lady in Question

The Cherry Orchard
Edmond Genest, Laila Robins, Erin Partin and Alison Weller
The contemporary feel of the plays of Anton Chekhov never fails to amaze me. His muted stories of the steep decline of aristocratic Russians at the end of the nineteenth century are so universal in their depiction of the fragile human psyche that halfway around the world from where they emanated we find characteristics of ourselves and our contemporaries in them more than 100 years after they were written. It seems that Chekhov found that the Russian aristocracy in decline were emotionally not very different from everyone else, as they tried without much success to cope with the burdens of their diminished circumstances. The myriad translations and adaptations may nudge its emphases in one direction or another. The humor with which Chekhov injected may be underlined or buried under the weight of the grimness of the losses being suffered. However, only a seriously wrong-headed, eccentric adaptation or an unskilled wooden performance could leave us unengaged. And that is decidedly not what we have at hand here.

What we do have is an adaptation by director Bonnie J. Monte (based on a translation by Julius West) that appears to place considerable emphasis on Chekhov's gentle humor. This is more than fair enough. However, the darkness in the basic set and in the lighting design is the dominant mood setter, nudging the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard to the melancholy side.

This solid, well acted Cherry Orchard is an essentially traditional production which nicely illuminates the script at hand and presents a good opportunity for theatregoers to reacquaint themselves with the play. It is especially recommended to those who have not had the opportunity or the good fortune to have seen it before.

There is an especially illuminating performance by Laila Robins as Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya. Returning home from a five years in Paris sojourn (embarked upon after the death of her son which had closely followed the death of her husband}, Lyubov is faced with the loss of her estate and its beloved cherry orchard as there is no money available to pay off its debts. At first, Lyubov is irritating in her distracted and wastrel ways in dealing with money, and her unwillingness, yea, inability, to face and deal with her financial problem.

After the single intermission, act three finds Lyubov on the day of the auction which will result in her family losing the estate. She confronts Pyotr, a perennial student who appears to be a soul mate for her younger daughter, Anya. As played by Robins in a somewhat agitated, yet essentially firmly in control, manner, Lyubov's expression of concern for both Pyotr and Anya, makes it clear that she is aware of practical matters and painfully aware of the consequences of her own inability to cope in a rational, adult manner with the vicissitudes of her existence. Raised in privilege, Lyubov had not been prepared for a life which would require more of her than being a hedonistic bauble. Thus, despite her humanity and inherent intelligence, Lyubov is constitutionally unable to make the changes in herself which are required for her to reverse the downward spiral of her existence. With a combination of expansiveness and control, Robins brings to vivid, three dimensional life, the intelligence, humanity and complexity of emotion beneath the surface of an outwardly frivolous woman. Brava!

Lyubov's protagonist is Lopakhin, a rich businessman who was born a serf on this very estate. Lopakhin is often portrayed as a coarse interloper, and as unappealingly arrogant, when he gains control of the estate. Yet, as played by Sherman Howard, his manner is that of a gentleman throughout. This seems an intelligent choice as it emphasizes his apparent warm feelings and concern for Lyubov which he demonstrates in his efforts to convince her to save the estate by building summer cottages on the vast expanses of the property which are home to the cherry orchard (although he could actually be just seen as promoting a good business deal for himself). Howard's finest moment comes when he can no longer hold in the joy that he feels in having become the owner of the land on which he was born a serf. As his Lopakhin fights to reign in his show of satisfaction, it is clear that his emotions are driven by his unlikely success rather than by the petty satisfaction of revenge .

There are solid performances in every role. Robbie Collier Sublett as Pyotr, the student who shares Lyubov's trait of impracticality, is naturalistically engaging. Erin Partin (Anya) and Alison Weller (Varya) as Lyubov's daughters attempt to keep smiling in the face of life choices limited by the inferior position of women in their society. Edmond Genest as Leonid, Lyubov's ineffectual older brother, and Bernard Burak Sheredy as a landowner neighbor well reflect two sides of the same coin. John Mohr (Fiers), Josh Carpenter (Yasha), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Charlotta), Caitlin Chuckta (Dunyasha) and Paul Niebanck (Simeon), are well defined servant and working class individuals whose lives are discombobulated in the upheaval without anyone paying much attention to them.

Although surrounded above, behind and to the sides by a plethora of (artificial) cherry blossoms, Marion Williams' mostly black central stage design with its dark brown wooden furnishings combines with the subdued lighting of Steve Rosen to create a feeling of gloom. The bright sunlight effect at the beginning of act four is in striking contrast to the lighting pattern employed throughout most of the play.

The dominant theme of The Cherry Orchard is the inevitability of loss and change. The hopeless attempt of the family to live in the past is reflected by their maintenance of a sitting room as "the nursery," despite the fact that it has been close to two decades since the patter of little feet has been heard in the house. Chekhov illustrates that, without the ability to change and grow personally, one cannot effectively cope with either societal or personal changes. It is Chekhov's understanding of these eternal verities and his skill in conveying them which make The Cherry Orchard and Chekhov's other masterpieces so relevant to us today.

The Cherry Orchard continues performances (Eves: Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Wed.-Sat. 8p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m./ Mats. Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.) through July 23, 2006 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ, 07940. Box Office: 973-408-3361/ online www.shakespearenj.org.

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov; directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast
Madame Lyubov Ranevskaya………….Laila Robins
Anya……………………………………...Erin Partin
Varya………………………………...Alison Weller
Leonid……………………………...Edmund Genest
Lopakhin………………………..Sherman Howard
Pyotr…………………....Robbie Collier Sublett
Boris…………………..Bernard Burak Sheredy
Charlotta………………Stephanie Roth Haberle
Simeon……………………………. ..Paul Niebanck
Dunyasha…………………………Caitlin Chuckta
Fiers……………………………………….....Jim Mohr
Yasha………………………………Josh Carpenter
Tramp/Post Office Clerk…………………Brian Cade
Station Master……………………….Tom Robenolt
Servants…….Pressly Coker, William Webber


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- Bob Rendell



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