Watching Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's current production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, I found myself asking why we don't see works by this playwright more often. The simple answer is that his classic plays (this one, his last, was produced in 1904) have large casts: Cherry Orchard has 14 distinct characters.
A cast that size, despite how wonderfully they are drawn, translates into a costly production in 2007. But it's feasible with a company of actors like CSC and the tissues of connectivity between them that Chekhov's finely drawn characters take on textured and meaningful lives.
Matt Johnson, for instance, is an energetic, sometimes over-the-top actor. He's perfectly suited for the talkative Leonid Gayev, a man inclined to jumping on a soapbox to hold forth about this or that. It's amusing when Gayev's sweet niece, Anya, played by Hayley Clark, tells him he needs to say less — not only because it's true, but because there's a subtle sense that Johnson's fellow actors have probably said as much to him in rehearsals.
Similarly, when veteran Giles Davies (part of the company since 1999), as Petya Trofimov, a perpetual student, chastises the boorishly bourgeois Yermolai Lopakhin for frequently sawing the air with his hands, you have the sense that Jeff Sanders, who plays Lopakhin, might have had such a comment from someone directing him. (Brian Phillips, CSC's artistic director who's been part of the company since 1999 himself, staged Cherry Orchard, and his familiarity with the actors surely played into this quality, too.)
The always watchable Jeremy Dubin plays the modest role of Boris Semyonov-Pishchik, a man constantly asking for money whose life revolves around making ends meet.
Dubin, who has mastered many roles for CSC, crafts this one nicely as a nervous, over-animated man who also happens to fall asleep on a moment's notice.
Professional actress Kate Wilford is not a CSC regular, but she brings a pleasant familiarity as Liubov Ranyevskaya, the matriarch of a family returning to a country estate in financial jeopardy. She and her immediate relations cannot see that the world has changed. Their past is crumbling, and their comfortable lives are evaporating in the face of a new, harsher modernity.
While this might sound like a grim drama, it's much more than that: Chekhov wrote with a warm sense of humor, bringing forth laughter even when characters are dreading loss or realizing that yearned-for love is not likely to materialize.
Chekhov's characters in this play epitomize old and new attitudes: Bill Hartnett plays the aging and infirm Firs to perfection, a man who can imagine no life but serving the wealthy family who once owned him and his ancestors. Rob Jansen, on the other hand, is the arrogant Yasha, a new generation of worker who does little and sneers at anyone who cares. He courts and abuses Dunyasha (Sara Clark), awash with romantic illusions but who can't get beyond her role as a servant. Corinne Mohlenhoff plays Carlotta, a haughty and progressive governess who uses her charms (and some magic tricks) to disguise her disdain for the wealthy people she serves.
And then there's Varya, Liubov's eldest daughter, caught between a crushing reality and a desire to be loved. Kelly Mengelkoch offers a moving portrait of this woman who sees what's coming and can't avoid it. She loves and hates the future, personified by Lopakhin (Sanders). When he can't bring himself to ask her to marry him, we see what the future holds for her and for her kind. Chekhov masterfully elevates this scene of domestic heartbreak to one that reflects the plight of people in a changing world.
That's what CSC does with Chekhov's play: A tale about vividly real people, awash in weaknesses and misguided intentions, reveals the truth and tragedy of the human comedy. Productions like this are a firm reminder of why it's worth revisiting the classics. Grade: A-
THE CHERRY ORCHARD, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through April 15.