Occupy Wall Street protesters evicted from their permanent settlements could do a lot worse than visiting (or re-visiting) Anton Chekhov’s class-conscious classic The Cherry Orchard, now in a skillful and funny if somewhat delicate production at the Classic Stage Company. The play charts the decline of the landed aristocracy and the rise of self-made, newly moneyed former peasants. Promotional posters for The Cherry Orchard upon its creation at the beginning of the 20th century could easily have sported a “We Are the 99%” slogan.
Not that producers today need a revolutionary zeitgeist to justify a fresh staging of Chekhov, nor do they need the presence of acting royalty like the arch John Turturro and the magnificent Dianne Wiest. But with a stormy political climate outside and a star-studded cast on the stage, this Cherry Orchard hits home, and not just with the 99%.
There’s plenty of theatrical aristocracy present, with a Rylance and two Waterstons in the company, but those who cast a cold eye on OWS might specifically fix mockingly on the highly flawed “perpetual student” Trofimov (Josh Hamilton) with his starry-eyed but rather vague revolutionary ideals. He’s a comic character, but then, as Chekhov believed, this play is a comedy – though without a doubt it is also a good deal more.
Translator John Christopher Jones, who is also a veteran actor, had the chance to work with both Wiest and Turturro as he produced his text, and the effort paid off, especially for Ms. Wiest, who inhabits the plum role of the matriarch Ranevskaya as if she’d been born to play it – at once cool and wilted, aristocratic and humble upon her return to her estate after five years in Paris with a faithless lover. Her helplessly decadent brother Leonid (Daniel Davis) has proven as inept as she at managing the finances of a huge estate, despite the helpful urgings of the nouveau-riche merchant Lopakhin (Mr. Turturro) to save it by converting its prized cherry orchard to summer-house tracts for the bourgeoisie.
By turns cocky and whimpering, Lopakhin feels as uncomfortable with his wealth as he is embarrassed by his self-thwarted desire to marry Ranevskaya’s adopted daughter Varya (the fine Juliet Rylance). It’s as if he’s worried his head will explode in confusion upon an alliance by marriage with the gentry, however well that might work out financially for all. And we do get something like that kind of explosion out of Lopakhin; as the family’s fate crashes down on them, the man who acts the tragic victim is the economically victorious merchant. It’s a tricky role, this man who can’t let himself fully enjoy winning, and Turturro can seem a trifle scattered trying to fit all the pieces together, though he gives an ultimately enjoyable performance nonetheless.
The younger members of the cast are delightful, especially Ms. Rylance, Elisabeth Waterston as the putting-on-airs chambermaid Dunyasha, Katherine Waterston as the romance-addled teenage daughter Anya, and Michael Urie, who steals a number of scenes as the klutzy, tragicomic clerk Epikhodov. The redoubtable Alvin Epstein invests the old manservant Fiers, who longs for the ordered old days of serfdom, with sympathy and a sort of pitiable charm.
Santo Loquasto’s sets, graced with evocative lighting by James F. Ingalls, function as another star of the show, especially the first-act nursery with its snow-white train set, and the grand third-act function room where the family hosts a last-gasp party.
Under Andrei Belgrader’s sure-handed and quick-footed direction, Chekhov’s old chestnut springs to life for a new generation raised on irony and on the same kind of deep, anxious uncertainty that gripped both the drooping nobility and the rising worker class a century ago and a world away.
The Cherry Orchard runs through Dec. 30 at Classic Stage, 136 E. 13 St., NYC.
Photos by Carol Rosegg