Review: Pear Avenue’s ‘Cherry Orchard’ tender, gentle

One of the most perceptive descriptions of Anton Chekhov’s work I’ve ever heard was made by a leader of a Chekhov workshop I attended many years back. In her view, Chekhov’s plays and situations could be summed up in the following way – it’s as if the walls are completely falling on top of the characters, while they sit in the middle of the room and sip tea.

In the Pear Avenue Theatre’s tender and gentle production of “The Cherry Orchard,” which closed this past Sunday, there was plenty of tea sipping and lots of figurative walls crashing down on the characters.

Ranevsky (A sharp Diane Tasca) has found herself in a bad way. She has returned to Russia after fleeing to Paris following the death of her husband six years prior and the drowning death of her son a month later.

It was the loyal Anya (a precocious Julia Belanoff) who retrieved her mother from Paris, finding her mother spending money at an alarming rate. And there is more bad news coming from merchant Lopakhin (the well-presenced Michael Champlin) – the family estate, which has burdened the family for some time, is now scheduled to be sold. Yet Lopakhin has a solution – parcel out some of the land for summer cottages, which would unfortunately require the enormous cherry orchard to be cut down. This is the only way the family’s debt crisis could be solved.

The play reflects a crossroads that took place in Russia in the late 1800’s. Serfs, who were freed in 1861, had not the money to pay for land to their respective landowners. And the landowners, with their limited knowledge of land and no access to free labor, suffered their own narcissistic demises.

Director Jeanie K. Smith took a Brechtian approach to her production, which worked very well. To say the Pear Avenue theatre space is small is like saying William Shakespeare did some good things in the world of literature. Yet, Smith chose to have her actors simply mingle and walk around before the show started, in the lobby, on the stage, in the seats, which were set up in a three-quarter arrangement.

What worked very well in the production is that it was full of charm and humor. And what was also clear is that the cast, a top-notch group of local performers, along with Smith’s direction did great honor to the script, a new translation from Marina Broadskaya. It was not a play that was big on aesthetic thrills, but extremely long on the crispness and sharpness of Chekhov’s words themselves. The staging was simple and economical, which continued to allow the focus where it most needed to be – the text.

The cast was very adept at the period acting it was required to do, with plenty of sharp, clean performances. Robert Sean Campbell, playing idealistic student Trofimov, was ebullient in his approach. Ronald Feichtmeier, playing Epikhodov or “Simple Simon,” was a lad with a plethora of charm, a hopeless romantic. And Jim Johnson’s Fiers was a show-stealer, espousing wisdom and razor-sharp observations, which provided colorful texture to the show.

While Chekhov’s piece is considered a classic, written nearly 110 years ago, it is most certainly relevant today.

Recently I watched a documentary from ESPN’s 30 for 30 series about athletes who made millions of dollars, yet still applied for bankruptcy. Or to quote football coach Herm Edwards in regards to so many, “You got champagne taste but only beer money.”

Anya (Julia Belanoff) and Trofimov (Robert Sean Campbell) speak of young idealism in the Pear Avenue Theatre’s production of “The Cherry Orchard.” (Pear Avenue Theatre photo)

Chekhov’s play is timeless. And productions like this are cautionary tales. Whatever cherry orchard belongs to us, we must be smart in the way we keep it. Or else, others will enjoy the sweetest, reddest cherries we grew, while we watch from the other side of the fence.

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