History books tell us that the past is divided into eras, and certain dates and events mark the beginning and end of those eras. But for the individuals living through history’s pivotal moments, the lines of demarcation between the past and future are not so clear.
On the Verge’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard offers audiences an engrossing study into the fall of an old paradigm and the birth of a new one as played out in the intimate emotional, philosophical, political and economic lives of the people involved.
Using the magnificent Ward Hall, a towering Greek revival home emblematic of 19th century aristocracy, as a site-specific canvas for the avoidable tragedy of the Ranevsky family, the play is an exquisite marriage of historic space and dramatic storytelling. What’s more, it shows, in nuanced, sobering detail, how the small steps and missteps of flawed people culminate in a permanent ending, or beginning, depending on each character’s point of view.
Set in 1903, the story centers on Lubya (Missy Johnston) and Leon (Walter Tunis), an aristocratic sister and brother whose grand estate home, which boasts an expansive cherry orchard as its crown jewel, will be auctioned if the family cannot scrape together enough money to pay the mortgage. The emancipation of Russia’s serfs, aka, slaves, some four decades earlier had sent the aristocracy tumbling into a freefall of financial ruin as they clung to their expensive lifestyles and sense of social superiority with no plan to adjust to the emerging capitalist landscape.
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More than any play I have seen, it is starkly apparent that each individual character inwardly inhabits a distinctly separate universe of his or her own, with differing perspectives standing in direct conflict. Awareness of these conflicts oscillate from being blissfully denied to subtly acknowledged to blatantly ignored to crushingly accepted.
Ave Lawyer, with the help of an adept ensemble, masterfully frames the significance of these conflicts.
Take the act one scene in which the family arrives home after a long period abroad. Seventeen year old Anya (Kelsey Waltermire), daughter of Lubya, is welcomed with enthusiasm by her maid, Dunyasha (Courtney Waltermire). Dunyasha shares exciting news of her potential marriage to the estate clerk (Tanner Gray), but Anya doesn’t listen to a word and instead just stares out her bedroom window and then complains about being tired.
Not long after, the family’s ingrained dismissal of non-aristocrats is punctuated further when Leon delivers an ostentatious speech to a bookcase while the solution to all of their troubles is less than three feet away from him in the form of Lopakhin (Adam Luckey), a self-made man and son of serfs, who repeatedly presses the family to accept his solid plan to save the estate by selling plots of the family’s land for summer vacation cottages. Seated in front of the iconic window to the cherry orchard, Lopakhin impatiently endures Leon’s puffed up tributes to ideals like “creativity” while the aristocrat exhibits literally none of it himself.
Lawyer artfully uses Ward Hall’s architecture to create stunning visual tableaus that underscore the conflicting motivations of the characters, each of whom represent a different aspect of the social and political changes in Russia.
Take Firs (played with aching pathos by Paul Thomas), an elderly servant who clings to his past as a serf. He is clearly living in a past that is long gone, yet cannot bear to adjust to the blurred societal lines that resulted in his people’s emancipation. And Petrov (Shayne Brakefield), the thirty-something perpetual student who represents the coming revolution of the 20th century. Contrast Leon’s fate as a lowly bank worker with fellow cash-strapped aristocrat Pischin’s (Glenn Tommy Thompson) lucky change of fortune. Tellingly, all of the women characters’ hopes are pinned to romance or marriage of some kind, and only one of those seem promising.
The ensemble cast elegantly balances cohesion with deep inner divides, a feat they pull off with nuance and skill. In other words, they are all alone together, before the next era of history permanently scatters them apart.