Despite a somewhat charged undercurrent, a plethora of highly-choreographed visuals, and some interesting and solid performances, Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard ultimately underwhelms. Though there are moments of emotional turmoil, poignancy, and pleasurable silliness, much of the impact is undercut by a nagging lack of cohesion in the overall effort. One must wonder whether the fact of having two directors, Christopher Henley and Gaurav Gopalan, though no doubt amicable, nevertheless diluted the vision. And vision is most necessary to sustain this challenging hybrid of a play where the comic and the tragic, the sympathetic and the pathetic, conduct their business side by side.
Matters are both helped and hindered by the overt choreography of Heather Haney who enters as a de facto third director (albeit a purely visual one). Throughout the evening, our attention is drawn to her clever work: the use of house spirits to physically express the unsaid, the sudden slapstick moments, and characters who circle the stage like wind-up toys. But although they are individually innovative, sometimes charming, these visuals and physicalities are not always convincingly embedded within framework at large. As such they divert at times rather than build. The drowning of Lyubov Andreevna’s son rendered symbolically is engaging and dramatically in tune with the suffering mother. Characters suddenly flopping across the stage into a supposed well was neither funny nor congruent.
This is a busy play, with a number of characters and sub-romances all encompassed within the big question of whether matriarch Lyubov Andreevna will lose her ancestral home along with its memory-filled cherry orchard. Along with the vagaries of young love, Chekhov draws out issues of birthright and the genesis of Russia’s middle class through the wants and needs of these characters as they await the fate of the orchard. Thanks to Chekhov’s sharp insight and wit, ruminations and romances alike remain interesting and applicable to the 21st century Westerner. Which made it all the more unnecessary for Trofimov, the universally recognizable perpetual graduate student, to mention ”daycare centers” during one of his heartfelt rants. There is a very fine line regarding the liberties one can take with the language of a classic.
Amid this emotional premise and despite some of the drawbacks, several actors do make their mark. Perhaps most memorable is the statuesque Lynn Sharp Spears as Lyubov Andreevna, who embodies not only the crippling loss and despair of this woman but also that of her species: the Russian aristocrat. Spears has a quiet charisma that grows in intensity as the play progresses and she does much to bring what cohesion there is to this production. She is well complemented by John Geoffrion in the role of her brother Gaev. With a nicely understated performance, Geoffrion delivers some of the more subtle humor of the piece.
Kim Curtis as Pishchik, a land-owner neighbor who scrounges shamelessly from the vulnerable Lyubov Andreevna, has some irreverent fun with the role while later seamlessly reflecting the poignancy of what is occurring to the old family he haunts. K. Clare Johnson and Jay Saunders, as Dunyasha the servant and Yasha the valet, two of the ships passing in the night (or rather the orchard), both offer solid performances with personality and energy. D.S.A. Deen as Trofimov the student is more of an enigma. Having some of the more didactic lines, Deen does an excellent job of suggesting inner conviction and the drive to enlighten as he pontificates, but there is a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to his style. Is he mocking this earnest character or is he mocking the earnestness of the audience?
Adam Jonas Segaller plays Lopakhin, the working-class man whose father served Lyubov Andreevna’s family as a reviled, poverty-stricken peasant. Lopakhin is the emotional counterpoint to Lyubov, a deeply conflicted man who pretends all is fine while deep resentments and self-doubt roils beneath the surface. Lopakhin is the ”free radical” in this close-knit cell, the man with the massive chip on his shoulder and the agenda of uncertain motives, but nevertheless Segaller overplays it. Every foot stomp is just too loud, every forced laugh too forced, every angry yell one decibel too much. Segaller may be showing us how much lies beneath, but volume doesn’t necessary speak volumes. Orbiting Lopakhin in hope of a marriage proposal is Lyubov Andreevna’s foster daughter Varya, played by Sara Barker with a lovely brittle vulnerability.
Finally, mention must be made of two actors who mange to inject their lesser roles with much piquancy: Richard Mancini as the ancient servant Firs and John Moletress cross-gendering and dressing as the multi-talented Governess Charlotta Ivanovna. Though their interpretations couldn’t be further apart, both are a delight to watch.