History and drama dramatically converge in the latest production by On the Verge, a local theater group with a record of mounting intimate, site-specific productions in non-traditional spaces.
This time, their work — or play — takes them to the Greek revival mansion Ward Hall in Georgetown for an intimate production of Anton Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard.
Small audiences of 25 will follow an ensemble of some of Lexington’s most seasoned actors throughout the public and private expanses of Ward Hall’s grand spaces, including the gardens, as they bring Chekhov’s tale of the fall of Russian aristocracy to life.
The Cherry Orchard is about a wealthy aristocratic family on the brink of losing everything, including its ancestral home, after Russian serfs were granted their freedom in the 19th century. The family returns home before its estate is to be auctioned, and are presented with options for saving it. But instead, the family throws parties and entertains, clinging to its old, familiar ways of living before eventually being forced out.
As of press time, the show was already sold out, although tickets to a June 21 performance benefiting the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation were still available.
Ave Lawyer, director of both the show and On the Verge itself, describes the resemblance between the plot of The Cherry Orchard and the fate of Ward Hall as one of the many compelling reasons the show and space work so well together.
Ward Hall is just the size and scale you might imagine that Chekhov had in mind when he wrote about the tragic circumstances of this family as they faced leaving their home of generations.
David Stuart, chairman of the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation
“There’s an exceptional alchemy here between the house and the story and the storyteller,” Lawyer says. “What is so remarkable is that the events that Chekhov talks about and that we bring to life in The Cherry Orchard have actually happened in the rooms of the house we’re performing in. You have these fantastic echos of the past and present blending together.”
Built in 1857 as the summer home of Mississippi plantation owners with deep Kentucky connections, Junius Ward and his wife Matilda Viley Ward, Ward Hall boasts 12,000 square feet and 27-feet-high Corinthian columns. Ward Hall was a grant place for entertaining and the Wards themselves were entrenched in the burgeoning thoroughbred racing scene, with Matilda’s brother being the first president of the Kentucky Racing Association.
The emancipation of slaves in the U.S., like that of the serfs in Russia, both occurring in the 1860s, led to the fall of families like the Wards, who were forced to sell the home in 1867 after the Civil War left them financially devastated.
“These people in The Cherry Orchard were never brought up to do anything,” Lawyer says. “They’re a product of 200 years of extravagance, of squandering income. There was no idea of investment. They bought expensive things. They furnished their homes competitively.”
“When they lost their free labor and suddenly they had to compete in a capitalist world, they didn’t know what to do, so they sat around and had parties and smoked and drank and had tea until there was no time left. I’m not saying that was the case with the Wards, but you know that there was a moment when they had to close the door and leave as well, when they had to watch their things be sold and auctioned.”
What is so remarkable is that the events that Chekhov talks about and that we bring to life in
Ave Lawyer, director
David Stuart, chairman of the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation, has observed the play’s evolution in the space from raw idea to dress rehearsal and says he is thrilled to see the house come alive.
“You have a sense that Ward Hall is saying, ‘Yes, I know, I was there, I lived it,’ and so it gives you a much more satisfying response to the play because you aren’t looking at a set, you’re looking at a living, breathing house which, just as this family (in the play) experienced, so did the Wards as they lived in it and ultimately lost it,” Stuart says.
“Ward Hall is just the size and scale you might imagine that Chekhov had in mind when he wrote about the tragic circumstances of this family as they faced leaving their home of generations. So as they (actors) stand in the various rooms and act out the scenes, you have a sense that Ward Hall itself is a member of the cast. Ward Hall is playing its role. It’s empathetic with what they’re trying to do.”
Lawyer says the more she and the ensemble worked in the space, the less it felt like a museum or historical artifact and the more it began to feel like a home.
“There’s dancing in the hallways, we’re lighting candles, the table is set for a party — it’s just quite beautiful,” Lawyer says. “So, so much life happened in there. That’s one of the things Chekhov talks about. He says the life in this house is finished now. It won’t come back.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If You Go
‘The Cherry Orchard’
What: Anton Chekhov’s play presented in a site-specific production by On the Verge theatre.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 22-26, June 29-July 3
Where: Ward Hall, 1782 Frankfort Road, Georgetown
Tickets: Sold Out
Call: (859) 948-2762
Notes: Tickets are available for $75 each for a June 21 performance to benefit the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation. On the Verge is taking requests for an additional June 28 performance. Call or email if interested.